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What Travis Kalanick’s Newfound Humility Means For Uber’s Future

March 4, 2017, 1:00 PM UTC
Travis Kalanick, co-founder and chief executive officer of Uber Technologies Inc., speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in Hong Kong, China, on Thursday, July 17, 2014. As Uber disrupts the transportation market around the world, Kalanick said he sees a huge amount of growth for the car-booking service in Hong Kong. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Brent Lewin — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Long known as a brash CEO, Uber’s Travis Kalanick has issued more high-profile apologies over the past four weeks than most CEOs are required to offer over four years.

First, Kalanick underestimated how deeply many of Uber’s employees, drivers and riders disliked his seat on President Trump’s business advisory council after people accused the ride-hailing company of profiting off of President Trump’s immigration ban. Kalanick initially said participating on Trump’s council was the “right thing to do,” but then retreated when it became clear the backlash was damaging Uber’s business results.

Then, Kalanick expressed remorse after an ex Uber engineer accused the company of allowing a culture of sexual harassment. Kalanick not only apologized, but vowed to set things right at a hastily called “all-hands meeting” (an unfortunate name for an employee gathering to address lecherous behavior).

He also initiated one of the fundamental tactics in the standard corporate crisis management handbook, calling on big names, such as former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington (a board member) to lead an independent investigation into the claims.

But most recently this week, after the release of a video showing him being nasty to an Uber driver, Kalanick took his contrition and self-criticism to a whole new and more personal level in a public statement.

“To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement. My job as your leader is to lead…and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud,” he wrote.

Some in the crisis management consulting business would call his response a “Road-to-Damascus moment,” an event when a previously notorious transgressor is struck with a life-transforming epiphany. Such public confessions are intended to reverse a spiraling narrative and achieve redemption.

“This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it,” he said. That statement set up a potential road to public rehabilitation, and we should presume “private” coaching sessions are being scheduled with either Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, Dr. Phil or His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

So what would lead such a famously swaggering alpha-boss to such acts of humility? As clever as Kalanick is, he is undoubtedly smart enough to know that he should fear for his job.

Uber’s Board of Directors and investors must surely be asking themselves if Kalanick has become so damaged that he can’t effectively lead Uber through the biggest business challenges the company has ever encountered. After its losses reportedly grew to $3 billion last year, the company still remains far from profitable. Uber also faces stiffening resistance in many key international markets, where Kalanick’s abrasive reputation will not be helpful.

A single major issue distracting the company is challenging enough, but three such issues could be downright debilitating.

So will Kalanick’s newfound humility protect his job?

If Uber was a publicly held company, he probably would already have been dismissed. But insiders make up the majority of Uber’s small board of directors, which includes Kalanick himself. So, he benefits from a much higher threshold for rejection.

Even so, Uber’s board of directors will undoubtedly show steeliness in determining whether Kalanick’s baggage is unacceptably holding the company back, particularly as rival Lyft seeks to exploit this current window of opportunity.

If he stays, the big question is whether Kalanick can deploy his newfound humility more proactively. In each of his three recent apologies, Kalanick seems to be acting on solid, textbook crisis management advice. As each issue erupted publicly, he responded quickly; used blunt language to take clear accountability and presented concrete actions to fix things. The problem, however, was that Kalanick’s reactive apologies have been entirely about damage control, since intense public scrutiny was required for him to take action on issues that had been festering for some time.

For Kalanick to make the shift Uber needs him to make, he must embrace a drastically different model. Uber’s business is built on algorithm-driven “dynamic pricing.” When the demand for rides surges, so do prices. Kalanick seems to have applied this same algorithm to Uber’s deeper issues. When the demand for greater humility has surged, so has the intensity of his public repentance.

But in the highly scrutinized game of global business leadership, “surge humility” doesn’t work nearly well as surge pricing. If Kalanick does indeed hang on to his seat at the wheel, then he’ll need to embrace an algorithm that supplies humility in advance of demand, not after.

Paul Pendergrass is an independent communications advisor and speechwriter who writes on business, leadership and communication.