Uber leadership

The Uber-Lesson for leaders

4 minute read


Here’s a question for you: should we stop thinking about the idea that people are ‘born leaders’? Or, put another way, do you think great leaders are always just naturally brilliant people who are consistently able to cope with the challenges they face?

Leaders are not ‘born great’; but they can become great with help.

This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help & I intend to get it.’  

Travis Kalanick, February 2017-06-29

I feel sorry for Travis Kalanick. He has had a tough year of family heartache and personal hubris. The founder and CEO of Uber lost both his parents and his job this year, ousted by his own investors. His personal loss reminds us that leaders are just as human as any of us. His professional loss reminds us that leaders need to face up to the fact they need help, early and often.

And in this fast-moving, hyper-scaling world, leaders need that help more than ever before.

In a hyper-scaling company you don’t only get ‘tech debt’, you often get ‘leadership debt’, leadership skills do not keep up with the challenges of running a bigger business. Kalanick clearly had been unable to keep up, as a leader, with the growth of his organisation from nothing to a $58bn valuation in five years.

Many smart people like Kalanick overestimate their ability and underestimate their fallibility. Leading a hyper-scaling organisation is a big challenge. We have seen a number of similar situations in other companies recently where investors have pushed out leaders because they are getting results at the expense of the culture and the reputation of the company.

If you are operating in a fast world, you need to find ways to accelerate your progress. Here’s a simple suggestion from the great Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

‘Learn from the mistakes of others. You cannot live long enough to make them all yourself’.

I’m currently writing a book on leadership in an accelerating world partly to help leaders to shortcut success by building on the ideas and insights of others. Many of the themes of the most impressive leaders I’ve interviewed are echoed in Kalanick’s story.

This Uber-fail should encourage us to reflect on what leaders of fast-moving organisations need (and what they need to know). Here’s some food for thought for anyone who wants to avoid the charge of being brilliant with ideas, terrible with people:

Surround yourself with critical friends and avoid the yes-sayers. 

Leaders need the right voices around them to stop the ‘Ozymandiasation’ of their position. They should never be in a position where it’s all about them alone.

Encouraging this is the responsibility of the leader, their board, the people head: no matter how much of a genius your founder or leader is, brilliance needs balance.

A senior title adds a weird hue of importance to people. A C-suite leader I spoke to recently told me how, on his promotion, people immediately treated him differently, ‘as if I was more likely to be right’.

In a recent Desert Island Discs Ed Sheeran confessed that he’d made some mistakes when his monumental fame hit him at an early stage and, to help, his entourage now included a number of his childhood friends to give him balance and make sure he had people to challenge his behaviour. It’s a contemporary version of the Roman Emperors who employed slaves to whisper ‘thou art mortal‘ on triumphal marches. It also means you have challengers to your thinking which will improve the quality of your approach.

Know how little you know.

One of the most impressive leaders I know who heads up the European region of a big company said ‘I am always ready to focus on unlearning’. His role and the world is constantly changing so he needs to be ready to learn new things and also unlearn old habits or beliefs.

You can improve quicker and faster with help. Travis Kalanick could have learnt from Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, who, when asked ‘what is the best advice you ever received?’ answered, Hire a coach…’ Every famous athlete, every famous performer has somebody who is a coach… to give them perspective”.

There is sometimes a perception that using a coach is remedial. But the smartest, most successful leaders I interviewed for my book had all used coaches to help them know themselves better, to increase the depth of their thinking and to challenge them constructively. Coaching is not a sticking plaster or a bandage. It helps your leaders be stronger and fitter to deal with the pace and pressure of a high-velocity role

This is not a solo sport.

Your Executive team or those you work with most directly should be a Superteam. Google’s analysis of what makes teams effective (Project Aristotle) showed that it’s not who is on a team that matters but how they work together. Smart investors look at the senior team not just at the CEO. So if you want a resilient organisation that can cope with the pace of change, you need a balanced leadership team that can challenge and complement the CEO.

You can’t hide what happens inside.

Brands are built ‘inside out’. The behaviour of your leadership team cannot be hidden and affects the attractiveness of your organisation both to customers and employees (acquiring great talent is a critical priority for hyper-scaling companies and particularly in the competitive world of tech). Kalanick’s downfall was triggered by one blogpost by one employee, Susan Fowler. But it wouldn’t have created such a storm if there weren’t so many problems that were rapidly exposed. You cannot control the voices of your customers or your employees – but you can make sure your Executive team are better at leading.

We operate in a Superfast world and a transparent one – the world can look into the window of your organisation and they will judge on what they see. Give your leadership the help they need to to become great leaders. Do it early and systematically and you will reduce the likelihood of a crash.

And for Kalanick? In February he faced up to the truth, saying: ‘The criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.’ So, he now knows… a little late for this situation but not too late for him.

Know a leader or leadership team who are smart and want to be great? Let us know. We’d love to help.


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Sophie Devonshire
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