Lessons in Travis Kalanick’s Tragedy

May 30, 2017

On Friday the 71-year-old mother of Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber, was killed in a boating accident near Fresno, Calif. (His father was seriously injured.) The following day, the press jumped on the story as rabidly as those about Uber that preceded it: “Tragedy strikes as Uber CEO Kalanick loses mother,” “Uber chief Travis Kalanick's mum dies when the boat she was riding with husband smashed into rock off California coast,” and from the ever-restrained Daily Mail, “Pictured: Boat wreckage where Uber CEO's mother died.” (The on-demand economy, come to think of it, is less about our insatiable need for Silicon Valley services than our need to read about them.)

There seemed to be a degree of shock to each report that followed the first. “It’s obviously a terrible tragedy for the Kalanick family,” wrote Kara Swisher at the tech site Recode. "[Bonnie Kalanick] was deeply proud of her son.” The words were accompanied by a photograph of the CEO happily sandwiched between his parents at this year's Kentucky Derby. Uber, for its part, release an equally emotional statement: "Last night Travis and his family suffered an unspeakable tragedy. His mother passed away in a devastating boating accident near Fresno and his father is in serious condition. Our thoughts and prayers are with Travis and his family in this heartbreaking time."

It is hardly a surprise that the company Kalanick leads would issue a statement with such forceful words as "unspeakable," "devastating," and "heartbreaking" in the wake of the event. But it is somewhat remarkable that the commentariat would do the same. After all, these are the critics who have lambasted the executive, and rightly so, for a competitive attitude that my Fortune colleague Adam Lashinsky described in the same breath as "audacious ambition" and "tone-deaf ruthlessness." The abrupt change in tone was enough to induce whiplash. Last week we were mulling whether the top executive at the world's most highly valued private company was rotten to the core. ("I don’t think I’m an asshole," he told Lashinsky. "I’m pretty sure I’m not.") This week we're reminded that he's someone's son.

Why are we shocked to learn that Silicon Valley's demigods are, in fact, human? The larger-than-life ideas of our wizards of disruption and enchantresses of innovation make it easy to elevate them beyond simple public-figure status. But they also have private parents, children, and hobbies that complicate that portrayal.

It seemed almost inevitable, for example, that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's bubbly yet steely chief operating officer, would campaign for political office before her husband, SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, suddenly died. Though Sandberg has since fashioned her adversity into another plank of her platform of empowerment, the incident itself was a rare glimpse of her humanity—a moment of authenticity amidst a highly orchestrated swirl of communication for a top executive at a fast-growing, oft-criticized California company. Even the messy divorce of Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, perennially the executive that other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs most look up to, was an unusually grounded moment for a towering technologist who has set his sights on Mars. (The Rocket Man may seemingly be able to bend the laws of physics to his will, but the laws of marriage, well, that's another story.)

With 12,000 employees and countless drivers Uber is now a concept that dwarfs its controversial chief executive. We will quickly move on to the next set of headlines and forget this fleeting interruption, even if Kalanick will not. (Indeed, over the weekend taxi drivers in Spain staged strikes against the company, Uber services resumed in Austin after a change in regulations, and speculation intensified ahead of the expected release of a report detailing allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination at the company.) But it would do us well to remember that the ancient Greeks never believed their capricious, occasionally immoral gods to be infallible—just a little smarter and a lot more powerful.

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