Travis Kalanick is very rich. A smart person with outsize ambition, Kalanick’s company, Uber, is a global phenomenon. Uber has never been profitable, but in the Silicon Valley venture capital world (meaning everyone’s world), that doesn’t matter. Because Uber has massive “engagement” — it owns a good portion of the transportation grid the way Facebook owns the “social grid.” Kalanick got to this point — turning a transformative idea into a billion business reality — with unchecked self-confidence and unrelenting drive. He did not, in other words, spend a lot of time soul-searching or considering other people’s feelings. For Kalanick, the world is something to be conquered, not just navigated.
Then, as has occasionally happened to people like Kalanick throughout history, he got some comeuppance. First Uber took a Donald Trump-related hit. Next the company was hit with charges of enabling a sexist management culture — and then Kalanick was video’d exploding on an Uber driver with an insensitive rant filled with privilege-reeking rage. But then something unusual happened. Kalanick didn’t just deliver one of those half-ass apologies that powerful people often do to quiet a frenzy. Kalanick appeared to look deep, find something missing in himself, and publicly admit it. In an age of minutely managed messaging, Kalanick’s big reveal stands out. Here is a powerful man admitting weaknesses and errors, a courageous act to all but the most polluted cynic. Most CEOs feel the need to project invulnerability — especially CEOs without profits. Kalanick’s show of vulnerability is rare:
By now I’m sure you’ve seen the video where I treated an Uber driver disrespectfully. 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. That is not what I did, and it cannot be explained away.
It’s clear this video is a reflection of me—and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.
I want to profoundly apologize to Fawzi, as well as the driver and rider community, and to the Uber team.