Travis Kalanick's Downfall Shows How Necessary Accountability Is to Strong Leadership
In the months leading up to former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepping down from his post, it seemed like every week some new story emerged detailing the different ways the company was struggling, from implementing new cultural mores in the wake of a damning harassment and discrimination investigation to the exit of the company’s new president not even six months into the job. The common denominator it seemed, was a brash, take-no-prisoners attitude towards all things that started at the top with Kalanick.
Now, seven months since Kalanick’s exit, a new report from Bloomberg takes readers inside the CEO’s last days, his reduced role within the company -- he remains a member of Uber’s board -- and the leadership style that signaled that there was trouble ahead.Related: 16 Weird Things We've Learned About Uber's Billionaire Co-Founder Travis Kalanick
The piece opens with a clash between Kalanick and short-lived president Jeff Jones about the public view of the company. “Jones and his deputies argued that Uber’s riders and drivers viewed the company as made up of a bunch of greedy, self-centered jerks. And as usual, Kalanick retorted that the company had a public-relations problem, not a cultural one,” write authors Eric Newcomer and Brad Stone
That impulse to pass the buck, as it were, soon came home to roost in a major way when footage of Kalanick berating an Uber driver named Fawzi Kamel was leaked, in which Kalanick can be heard saying, “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit! They blame everything in their life on somebody else!”Related: The Rise and Fall of Uber and Travis Kalanick
“As the clip ended … Kalanick seemed to understand that his behavior required some form of contrition,” write Newcomer and Stone. “According to a person who was there, he literally got down on his hands and knees and began squirming on the floor. ‘This is bad,’ he muttered. ‘I’m terrible.’”
The subsequent personal payment to Kamel from Kalanick of $200,000 show perhaps not a willingness to interrogate mistakes, but to paper over it in hope that it will go away. As the search was on to find a new CEO, Kalanick’s pick was reportedly former General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt. It seems that his aim was for Immelt to hold the position for two years, at which point Kalanick would return to lead the company.
But even in his capacity as former CEO, it seemed that the instincts that led to his ouster were still alive and well -- daily check-ins with executives -- and according to Newcomer and Stone, Kalanick “ordered the security team to dig through an employee’s email to see if that person was leaking a potentially damaging story.”
The Bloomberg investigation paints a picture of someone whose mistakes rendered them irrelevant to the company that they built. It shows that the strategies that brought the business its first brushes of success became more damaging than helpful, and there was a lack of personal accountability that would have allowed Kalanick to realize that.