‘I must grow up’ says controversial Uber boss

Bossed around: Three successful managers with a reputation for “ruthless” leadership styles.

Travis Kalanick has had a rough few weeks. His firm faces a lawsuit, accusations of sexism — and now a video shows him swearing at one of his own drivers. Must you be nasty to be successful?

“By now I’m sure you’ve seen the video,” said the email to Uber staff on Tuesday night. “To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement. My job as your leader is to lead… That is not what I did.” The boss finished with a “profound apology” and a promise: “I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”

The video in question shows an Uber driver, Fawzi Kamel, who is driving his company’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick. At the end of the ride, Kamel turns in his seat and begins questioning the company’s financial decisions, saying “I’m bankrupt because of you”.

But Kalanick is scornful; he dismisses the claim, swears, and tells Kamel: “Some people don’t like to take responsibility.”

The row is the latest incident in a bad few weeks for Uber. Last Sunday one of its former engineers, Susan J. Fowler, wrote a scathing blog post about the sexism she faced there, including sexual harassment. This sparked an internal investigation. Then last Thursday a branch of Google’s parent company filed a lawsuit against Uber, accusing it of using stolen designs for its self-driving car technology. The next day two investors criticised Uber for not changing its “destructive” culture sooner.

These are hardly Uber’s first controversies. Ever since it began “disrupting” the taxi industry, it has faced fury from cab drivers and governments. It has been accused of avoiding paying taxes in the UK, shirking responsibility for the death of a six-year-old girl, and advertising female drivers as “hot chicks” in France.

Former Reddit boss Ellen Pao recently described the company as “unfixable”. It needs a “complete reboot, starting at CEO level,” she said.

Yet it was Kalanick’s aggressive style which helped to turn Uber into a $68bn company. And Silicon Valley is famous for its “nasty” bosses — none more so than the late Steve Jobs, who would regularly reduce his employees to tears.

Nice guys finish last?

It is a troubling fact about human nature that nasty people often get results, say some. Many of those who worked for Jobs insist that he “made them better,” and he was clearly a genius, observed the writer Aaron Sorkin. Similarly Uber was always going to cause trouble with old cab companies, but for passengers it is a revelation. Kalanick’s ruthless leadership style is part of that success.

But for how long? ask others. The many rows engulfing Uber prove that this is an unsustainable approach. Research shows that employees of difficult bosses often end up stressed and demotivated, before simply moving elsewhere. Far better to follow the example of Google’s “nice guy” CEO Sundar Pichai, who describes his job as “empowering people” and “trusting them to do the right thing”.

You Decide

  1. Should Travis Kalanick resign?
  2. Do nasty bosses get better results?

Activities

  1. You have been hired by Uber to help improve its public image. Write down three actions you would take on your first day.
  2. Write a job advertisement for the boss of a large technology company. What qualities must he or she show?

Some People Say...

“My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to make them better.”

Steve Jobs

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m glad I don’t have to worry about bad bosses!
True, but this is still an important issue. After all, it won’t be long before you start thinking about entering the world of work yourself — and you may end up with a “tough” boss. Then it might help you to understand why they are acting that way, and how they might improve. However, it is important to note that sexism in the workplace is never okay; it is, in fact, illegal.
What will Uber do now?
It has already begun an internal investigation into the accusations of sexism, overseen by board member and online newspaper founder Arianna Huffington. Meanwhile, this is the second time in a week that Kalanick has promised his employees that he will begin listening to them more and improving his leadership. The question is: will that be enough?

Word Watch

Financial decisions
Specifically, he criticised Uber’s decision to lower fares for drivers — a move which helped it stay competitive with other on-demand taxi apps.
Sexual harassment
This involved a manager making suggestive comments over the company chat (an app for messaging). Fowler says essentially Uber’s HR department ignored the problem.
Self-driving car
Waymo is the self-driving car company within Alphabet, which also owns Google. Its former employees began a new self-driving car company, allegedly using Google designs. This company was then bought by Uber.
Disrupting
“Disruptive innovation” describes completely transforming an industry with new technology. In this case: ordering taxis through an app.
Taxes
The argument centred around whether drivers were self-employed; last October courts ruled that they were not.
Death
The girl was killed by an Uber driver in 2013. Her family sued the company. It initially denied responsibility but settled the lawsuit in 2015.
$68bn
According to Forbes in December 2015.
Aaron Sorkin
The screenwriter of a biopic about Jobs released in 2015.

Subjects

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