Here's What Travis Kalanick (or Anybody) Needs to Do to Take an Effective Leave of Absence
The point of stepping out of the limelight, like the point of going to rehab, is to return a genuinely different and renewed person. It's not a quick process.
After a very troublesome year for the company, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick will be taking a leave of absence. This isn’t unprecedented, but it usually happens for health reasons, or the executive gets forced out and/or assumes a different position within the company without taking an official break from the business. For an official leave of Kalanick’s kind to be effective, the executive needs to do the hard mental and emotional work to rehabilitate themselves, and that’s never a quick fix. If we see Kalanick back in less than a year, it will be hard to believe he’s taking this seriously and that real changes have been made. However, if he works on his character and not just his reputation, he can come back stronger than ever before.
Here’s how executives, and anyone, can take an effective leave of absence:
Really do be absent.
This sounds ridiculously obvious and simple, but it’s not easy for someone who is used to running the show, enjoys the limelight, and relishes the attention. Leave of absence means staying off social media, out of the mainstream media, no speeches given, no attending fund raisers, no awards banquets, no charity balls or galas, no going to plays, festivals or concerts, and absolutely no dining out where you will be recognized. Forget about holding court and running a shadow operation from your ranch house in the middle of nowhere. And above all else, NO PARTYING.
Take an honest assessment of your internal identity.
In order to come back strong, you’ll need to find out who you really are, who you want to be, what internal strengths you want to highlight and what you aspire to be. “I'm rich” is not an internal identity. “I'm a CEO” is not an internal identity. And, “I'm the Founder of a Pink Unicorn Tech company” is also not an internal identity either. When people have an external identity who they are is based on outside factors. Once those externals go away, and they will if you truly are absent, you’ll no longer know who you are or what your purpose is in life. This is not an easy realization and being unable to face it is what brings a leave of absence to a premature end.
Have an identity statement.
The target of the leave of absence shouldn’t be limited to repair of one’s image and reputation; it should be to rehab one’s character. A character rebuild requires taking complete control of oneself and having a clearly defined internal identity that says, “That is who I am. This is who I want to be. These are the internal strengths by which I want to define myself.”
Highlight internal strengths like excellence, integrity, honor or trustworthiness, for example. The identity statement is a statement built in this format, “I am this, who does that.” A simple sentence. Not long. Not flowery. Pithy. Short. Concise. Precise. Powerful. For example, “I am a man of excellence, who always keeps his word.” Or “I am a woman of integrity, who maintains a balanced and effective life.”
Make the course corrections.
Based on the honest assessment, begin proving those changes to be authentic and credible over time. Create a track record of fidelity to your internal identity. This starts in weeks but takes years, even a lifetime, to complete. Your reputation was built over the course of years, and it will take years to change it.
We each live three lives. We live a secret life, a private life and a public life. We act and live a certain way in public. We act and live a certain way in private, behind closed doors. And we act and live a certain way secretly, which are the thoughts we think and how we talk to ourselves in our heads. Our public life is our reputation, and our secret life is our character. What we think and do in our secret lives will always become public -- it’s just a matter of time.
To accomplish the target of the leave of absence, Mr. Kalanick must re-program his secret life, his character. How he thinks and talks to himself and about himself and others. If this leave of absence is only about managing his and Uber’s reputation, it will ultimately fail. If it is truly about “Travis 2.0” then it will take a long time before he can truly be believed. He’s been promising 2.0 for a long time, and his reputation has only suffered further damage.
Life is a credibility based business. It takes years to build and seconds to destroy. Mr. Kalanick has spent years destroying his and must objectively realize it’ll take years to fix, but it can be done.
Andrew D. Wittman, PhD, is a United States Marine Corps infantry combat veteran, a former police officer and federal agent. As a Special Agent for the U.S. Capitol Police, Wittman led the security detail for Nancy Pelosi and has personally protected Hillary Clinton, Tom Delay, Trent Lott, King Abdullah of Jordan, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Sir Elton John, as well as Fortune 20 CEOs. As a security contractor for the State Department, he taught high-threat diplomatic security to former Navy SEALS, Marines, Rangers, and Special Forces.
Wittman is founder of the Mental Toughness Training Center, a leadership consultancy specializing in peak performance, team dynamics, resolving conflict in the workplace and is the author of the new book, Ground Zero Leadership: CEO of You (2016). He holds a Ph.D. in Theological Studies, is a guest lecturer at Clemson University and co-hosts the radio call-in show “Get Warrior Tough.”