Travis Kalanick: Monster or Martyr? What Silicon Valley Can Learn from His Fate

Lessons about leadership and culture from Silicon Valley’s latest controversy

Image source: Inc

Travis Kalanick officially resigned as Uber’s CEO on Wednesday, June 21st, 2017 after mounting pressure from five of the ride-hailing app’s top investors.

To anyone with an eye on the news, this probably isn’t a big surprise. Uber’s been making headlines for their toxic culture for the past few years; but things really started reaching crisis levels in February of this year, when Susan Fowler’s critical blog post, Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber, went viral.

And based on recent headlines, it looks like things haven’t gotten much better since.

The news of Travis’ resignation comes less than a week after announcing his temporary leave to mourn the tragic loss of his mother, and to work on developing himself as a leader.

Whether or not this was the right move for Travis (and Uber as a whole) remains to be seen. After all, who knows: Maybe Travis will pull a Steve Jobs and return to Uber sometime later as a new man and leader. I’d certainly give him a second chance.

But regardless of which “side” you’re on and which direction Uber goes, one thing’s for sure:

If you’re a startup CEO, there’s a lot you can learn from this ordeal about the power of a leader, the importance of your environment, and the influence of culture.

Travis Kalanick: Martyr or Monster?

As outlined in this TechCrunch article by John Biggs (@johnbiggs), most people seem to be reacting one of two ways to the news of Travis’ departure …

On one side, you’ve got people defending Travis and celebrating his leadership. On the other, you’ve got people celebrating his forced resignation and even calling him a monster.

So … Who’s right? The truth is, both sides probably are.

The “Alexia” group sees Travis first and foremost as a human being. They’ve found at least one positive side to him and feel this has been overlooked in the drama.

The “Kara” group, on the other hand, sees the mounting evidence of Travis’ unethical behavior and base their assessment of his character on that.

And while understandable, there’s a chance the “Kara” party may be falling prey to what Stanford psychology professor Lee David Ross calls the fundamental attribution error.

Bad Decisions Don’t (Necessarily) Mean Bad People

In layman’s terms, fundamental attribution error means two things:

  • First: Our actions and decisions are often the result of our environment and circumstances, not our personality, and
  • Second: We often forget this, and end up attributing the behavior of others to their personality and — by extension — their identity.
“Our actions and decisions are often the result of our environment and circumstances, not our personality.”

For example: Imagine you’re driving down the 101 when, out of nowhere, a sports car flies up from behind and cuts you off, forcing you to swerve and slam on your breaks.

What’s the first thing you do after you regain control?

Probably express some clever combination of curses that ultimately amount to, “That guy’s an asshole.” But … Is he really? If you could teleport into the passenger seat of that sports car, you might tell a different story.

If you could, you’d see the driver with tears rolling down his face. He’s just received news that his wife of 33 years has been hospitalized following a heart attack. The doctors aren’t sure if she’ll make it and he’s on his way to the hospital, praying he makes it in time.

So now what? Is the guy still an asshole?

Granted: He probably shouldn’t have been driving if he couldn’t do so safely. But I believe, if you’re a human being with any amount of empathy, you’d probably feel his pain and recognize that, in the same situation, you might have done the same.

In this example, the driver behaves the way he does (driving erratically) due to external environmental factors (his wife’s heart attack). And in this moment, these environmental factors influence his behavior far more than his personality.

So here’s the question: Is it possible we’re doing the same thing to Travis?

By calling him a monster, we’re attributing his behavior to his personality, rather than to environmental factors; and that may not tell the whole story.

Of course, this is a double-edged sword and I’m not giving Travis a free pass: As CEO, he was responsible for creating that environment. But I think, ultimately, he became a product of his environment rather than his environment becoming a product of him.

That’s why …

As a startup CEO, it is so important to take ownership over the environment you create early on in your business.

Moreover, become aware of what potential pressures might drive you to behave in ways that might cause you to lose control over your environment. If you don’t, it’s easy for that environment to become so toxic and so powerful that it ends up influencing you, rather than the other way around.

From Vietnam to Silicon Valley: Environment is Everything

Before we go any further, let’s define “environment.” In this context, your environment is the sum of all signals, both internal and external, that you allow to influence your thoughts and behaviors.

As Chip and Dan Heath discuss in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, our environments influence our behavior. To illustrate just how influential environments can be, let me share a quick story from the pages of America’s history books:

Prior to the Vietnam War, very few American soldiers actively used narcotics and only about 1% were addicted. But during the war, everything changed.

Once in Vietnam, nearly half the soldiers experimented with hard drugs, and nearly 20% wound up addicted.

No surprise: Government officials were very concerned about what would happen when thousands of drug addicted soldiers returned to American soil. But one day they did, and something amazing happened:

Upon returning home, soldiers were met with a different environment. They were surrounded by those who loved them, who cared for them, and who wouldn’t tolerate a drug addiction.

Moreover, they had new goals. Instead of just surviving, these soldiers-turned-civilians now wanted to settle down, have a family, and get a job.

Needless to say: A drug addiction didn’t align with their new environment. And so, shortly after the war ended, White House researchers were surprised to find the addiction rate back at 1%.

What happened?

Put simply, those soldiers — like all of us — were highly sensitive to their environment, their culture, and the expectations placed on them. In war, drugs were accepted; so drugs were used. At home, drugs weren’t accepted; so drugs weren’t used.

Travis Kalanick and the Fundamental Attribution Error

So how does this relate to Travis?

I wonder if the competitiveness of the industry and an insatiable drive to win — two factors that drove Uber to massive initial success — ultimately created an environment that encouraged Travis and his team to act the way they have.

This is pure speculation, but I think there’s a good chance that, prior to Uber’s success, Travis created something similar to what I call a Personal Constitution. And if we were to take a look at his initial values and intentions, I wouldn’t be surprised if we found them admirable.

But through their “win at all costs” mentality, Travis and his team may have unintentionally created an environment they lost control of; an environment that, ultimately, took control of not only the team but also — as Connie Loizos (@cookie) points out in this TechCrunch article — their VCs as well.

“But through their ‘win at all costs’ mentality, Travis and his team may have unintentionally created an environment they lost control of.”

So what can you, as a startup CEO, learn from this? The importance of values.

It’s vital that you know your values from the outset, and that you treat them like an impenetrable wall; a wall that will not be breached, no matter the circumstances.

Because one compromise leads to two. Two leads to three. And before you know it, you’ve lost control of your environment.

Quick tip: Leverage feedback from mentors, advisers, and coaches without “skin in the game” to keep yourself accountable.
Surround yourself with people who care about you more as a person than as a CEO, and hold monthly or quarterly reviews with them, during which you evaluate whether or not your recent actions have aligned with your values.

Stopping the Steam Engine

Speaking of “out of control,” when did things truly get “out of control” for Uber?

Many people would probably point to the Susan Fowler post as the “beginning of the end” for Travis, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. Something this big doesn’t just “happen” over the course of a few months.

The reality is, by the time the Susan Fowler article came out, it was probably already clear to those watching closely that Travis’ time as CEO was limited.

Why? Because Uber’s toxic environment had created a toxic culture, and that culture had been building for years by the time that article was published. Every day it got bigger, more prevalent, and more poisonous.

Eventually it turned into this metaphorical steam engine we see now, barreling forward in the wrong direction at 100 MPH. And at that point, that’s not something you can slow down — let alone stop — in six months’ time.

Because when you’re in that steam engine — or in that environment — it’s very hard to see how bad things actually are. You may not realize how fast you’re going — or even that you’re moving in the wrong direction — until it’s too late.

That’s what we’ve seen with Travis: With the implementation of Eric Holder’s recommendations and the firing of 20 employees, it’s clear:

Travis was trying to slam on the breaks and fix the culture problem.

But at that point, it was too little too late. The stakeholders were out of patience, so they removed what they believed to be the source of the problem: The CEO himself.

So, as a CEO, be very aware of the cultural momentum you’re building. In the beginning, it’s relatively easy to change. But the more successful you become and the faster you move, the more and more difficult it becomes to change direction on a whim.

The Power (and Danger) of Habits When Creating Your Culture

Here at Mindmaven, we define culture in a very simple but extremely pragmatic way: The sum of all actions performed by a group of people.

The key word there is “actions,” and here’s the thing about actions: The more you repeat a specific set of behaviors, the more you influence your culture in that direction.

So if you’re the type of leader who praises his team every day, you’re probably going to develop a culture of gratitude and appreciation.

But if you’re the type of leader who makes flippant sexist comments every day — even when it’s slight or light — you’re probably going to develop a culture of sexism and harassment.

But it gets worse, because the more you repeat a specific set of actions, the more habitualized — or automated — they become. And the more habitualized something becomes, the less consciously aware you become of it.

As a result, your culture can wind up on autopilot; directed by a set of unconscious, automated behaviors. And left to its own devices, this automation can get so out of control that one of your board members ends up making sexist comments during a board meeting about how to address sexism in the work place.

From the outside looking in, that sounds insane and almost-comical. Who does that?

But, in all likelihood, Mr. Bonderman probably didn’t give the comment any conscious thought before he said it. After all, comments like that are the norm.

Does that excuse it? Absolutely not. In fact, that makes it all the worse: Discrimination has become so deeply engrained in the culture of the leadership that it isn’t a malicious choice, it’s an unconscious habit.

And …

“Bad habits, as most of us know, are much harder to correct than one-time mistakes.”

So here’s the lesson for founders and CEOs: Pay close attention to the behaviors and actions you and your team are perpetuating.

This is especially important in the early days of your startup, when stress and pressure is high and you’re constantly fighting for survival. If your values survive these difficult times, they’ll be better equipped for whatever comes next.

As a Leader, You’re a Role Model: Act Like It

And one final thing: While there are certainly narcissistic startup CEOs, most of the CEOs I’ve had the pleasure of working with have what I call a Modesty Complex when it comes to their role as a leader.

They don’t think they’re anyone special; just someone who came up with the right idea and is working hard on it. Few startup CEOs view themselves as natural-born leaders.

But natural-born or not: You’re a founder now. A CEO. A leader. And like it or not, your people are looking to you for guidance and will emulate the example you set.

You are the role model for the rest of your organization and your actions have far-reaching consequences; because at the end of the day …

Your people will use your actions as the ultimate guide of what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

In other words, the example you set becomes the reality of your startup; that’s the weight of leadership, and it’s not something that should be treated lightly.

So if you want to create the type of business people look up to and respect, make sure the sum of your actions reflect the culture and values you believe in.

Want to learn more about how to take an active role in defining your company’s culture? Check out How to Become a Legendary Leader (in Just 5 Minutes a Day)

Good Intentions Only Take You So Far

All of this said: I don’t know Travis, and I don’t know how true any of this is for his situation. But either way, the things we can learn from this ordeal are profound.

Is Travis innocent? No, probably not. But is he the monster much of the media makes him out to be? Again: No, probably not. In reality, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

Like most CEOs, Travis probably started Uber with the best of intentions (of winning). But somewhere along the way, lines were crossed, values were betrayed, and mistakes were made.

But regardless of what actually happened and who Travis really is, one thing remains true:

If you want to build a great company — not just a financially successful company — never lose touch with your values, your team, your environment, or your culture.

And perhaps the biggest learning of all is that Uber might not be the massive outlier of harassment and discrimination we’re making them out to be. The truth is, this can happen to any business and any leader; and it can happen to you.

At the end of the day, Uber isn’t an example of the extreme. They’re just another amazing technology company from Silicon Valley who happened to stray a little further from the rest in their relentless quest to win.

And so the best thing we can do as an industry is to learn from Uber as a company and Travis as a leader and heighten our awareness around just how easily this can happen.

Interested in some pragmatic tips to put these lessons into action? Let me know in the comments below!