Paying Hubris’ Fare at Uber

Lance Accountability, Integrity, Leadership, People Comments

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This morning brought the news that Travis Kalanick has succumbed to investor pressure and resigned his post as CEO of the company he founded, Uber. According to the New York Times, five investors who control more than 25% of Uber’s stock and hold approximately 40% of its voting power issued the resignation demand to Kalanick by way of letter yesterday. This news is hardly surprising, given the PR nightmare that Uber has been driving around with for the past six months. As detailed by Bloomberg News:

In December, Uber pulled its self-driving cars off the road in San Francisco after the California Department of Motor Vehicles said they were operating illegally without an autonomous vehicle license. In January, more than 200,000 people uninstalled their accounts, and #DeleteUber trended on Twitter, after the company was accused of undermining a New York taxi union strike protesting President Donald Trump’s refugee ban. On Feb. 2, Kalanick reluctantly left his spot on Trump’s business advisory council to appease the company’s liberal-leaning employees and users—not to mention its many immigrant drivers. On Feb. 19, a former software engineer at Uber wrote a blog post alleging that she had been propositioned for sex by her manager and that when she’d taken the issue to human resources, an HR rep had said that he wouldn’t be punished, in part, because he was a “high performer.” On Feb. 23, Alphabet’s autonomous car company Waymo sued Uber and its self-driving car company Otto, accusing an Uber employee of stealing trade secrets by downloading 14,000 files onto an external hard drive. On Monday, Uber’s head of engineering resigned after the company said it learned that he had faced a sexual harassment complaint at Alphabet, his former employer. He denied the allegations.

That recitation of recent history was in an article detailing the public humiliation Kalanick and Uber suffered after video of him arguing with an Uber driver became public.

That incident, and the public fallout from it, led to Uber’s CEO to author what he titled “A Profound Apology”:

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the video where I treated an Uber driver disrespectfully. To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement. My job as your leader is to lead…and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud. That is not what I did, and it cannot be explained away.

It’s clear this video is a reflection of me—and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.

I want to profoundly apologize to Fawzi, as well as the driver and rider community, and to the Uber team.

—Travis

A lot of digital ink is going to be spilled dissecting today’s news, and the present and future implications of it. What does it mean for Uber going forward? What does it say about the Silicon Valley Startup Culture? As one of Uber’s board members put it:

But, as I saw the news this morning when I awoke, my mind went to the past … to a lesson nearly 3,000 years old: Proverbs 16:18 —

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

A little humility within Kalanick as a 30-year-old would have spared him from having to learn these lessons as a 40-year-old via public shaming. Leading others is more than making the important decisions about course and speed from the big chair while enjoying the perks of rank in the organization’s wheel-house. The ship’s captain’s sacred duty is to protect its passengers and crew.

The wealth and power that come with sitting in the Captain’s Chair of a billion-dollar enterprise like Uber creates space and freedom to act like an “asshole” with seeming impunity. As ancient wisdom and today’s news both demonstrate, that space free of consequences is a mirage. Pride is like a computer virus — a line of malicious code that will wreak havoc on the system eventually. The firewalls of wealth and fame will only hold for so long. Ultimately, pride will infect the system in a way that leads the system to act in self-destructing ways. Believe me, I know: I, too, have been fired before as a result of my pride running amok.

Here’s hoping that among the many lessons leaders will look to take from Uber’s fantastic story overall, and this sordid chapter in particular, this moral of the story isn’t ignored: Either through humility “Leaders Eat Last,” or eventually Pride will at last eat the leaders.