Uber’s chickens have come home to roost—and they’re garbed in the attire of institutional investors. Travis Kalanick, the company’s founder and CEO, has stepped away from the podium, leaving his beloved Uber in the hands of a new, yet unnamed, executive.
Kalanick found himself in this untenable position because of questions about his character. The investors who brought on the coup apparently carried concerns that Kalanick’s character (or lack of it) could seep into the marketplace and affect analyst estimates of the company’s valuation.
While it may appear that Kalanick’s professional career is over, we can’t forget that American business leaders often have a second act. Jamie Dimon stands as Exhibit A, having been fired as president of Citigroup in the 1990s, but later becoming JPMorgan Chase’s highly regarded CEO today. Mark Hurd left Hewlett Packard in 2011 in disgrace after revelations of personal scandal, but today is thriving as CEO of Oracle.
Other disgraced leaders have decided to make the most of their severance and remain in the shadows. Yet Kalanick’s public persona does not mesh with the notion of a quiet senescence, maybe sprinkled with a few guest lectures before MBA classes. The guy came up with something big, driving it aggressively and, finally, recklessly. It’s unlikely he will spend the remainder of his days sipping margaritas and watching sunsets.
So how would a second act play itself out for Kalanick? Here are some possible paths:
Tell all (or at least a little)
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Kalanick pens a confessional best-seller laced with mea culpas that changes how he’s publicly perceived. By consciously calibrating a series of statements and providing evidence of a changed mindset through taking part in projects aimed at the public good, he’d become the poster child for reform and reflection.
Rewrite the story
Finding sympathetic and influential people who can redirect the narrative around his fall offers Kalanick another path to redemption. By providing researchers with insights into Uber’s concept and execution, he can encourage a discussion around his stewardship of the company and a rethinking of his culpability. As with other historical subjects, Kalanick may benefit from revisionism. He could play a part in that process.
Build it and they will come
Kalanick could now focus his efforts on building something new—a product or service that expresses his knowledge of where technology is headed. What Steve Jobs accomplished by founding the computer and software company NeXT (which was later sold to Apple) could provide Kalanick with a model for action and springboard to redemption.
Twitter Co-Founder Jack Dorsey’s journey more or less followed this route. Pushed out of the company’s CEO spot in 2008 to an honorary position as chairman of the board, he moved in a separate direction and founded Square, the mobile payment app, in 2010. By 2015, he was reappointed permanent CEO of Twitter. Dorsey’s original problems at Twitter also concerned questions of character and managerial acumen. Subsequently, he worked to reinvent his public persona.
Perhaps Kalanick will eventually return from the wilderness to oversee a changed company culture at Uber, one where listening with empathy trumps testosterone. After all, despite his resignation, he remains a top shareholder. The board of directors could very well proffer pardon down the road, but Kalanick will need to clean up his act first.
Irv Schenkler is a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.