The big debate: Can Uber's Kalanick do a Steve Jobs and make a comeback?

Travis Kalanick
At thirty, Steve Jobs had already revolutionized personal computing, and was a global celebrity. But in 1985, thanks to a power struggle in the boardroom, he got fired from the very company he had created. Fast forward to 2017, and Travis Kalanick has just faced the exact same fate after fundamentally disrupting the taxi industry. The point here is not that history is repeating itself in Silicon Valley, because many an icon have fallen in disgrace in the business world, and will probably continue to do so. The key questions are: How do these two exits compare, and will 40-year-old Kalanick be able to make the spectacular comeback that Jobs managed in 1997?

Jobs was passionate about Apple’s products, and had a burning desire to change the world. So great was his passion for perfection that he could not tolerate anything but the very best. As a result, he was impatient, impolite, and downright rude with people until in his mind he got the product just right. Once he did, he believed in it so much that he was willing to defy all odds to make it succeed, ignoring any feedback to the contrary.  This strategy worked until 1985 when the market did not well receive the new Macintosh Office. Jobs then went head on against CEO John Sculley, whom he had lured away from PepsiCo just two years earlier - demanding a drop-in pricing, and increasing advertising spend.  Sculley finally won the boardroom battle and removed Jobs as the head of the Mac division.

Kalanick too wants to change the world and has already done so.  But the main reason for his ouster was not his impatience to bring the best products to market. Sexual harassment, and creating an overall toxic corporate culture that is particularly harsh on women are among the charges against him.  Under Kalanick, the company is also accused of unethical and opportunistic business practices like the way-over-the-top surge pricing during a terror attack in Sydney.

I have long maintained that leaders who change the world are driven by an unlimited intrinsic strength – which I describe in my new book, Open Source Leadership (McGraw-Hill, Oct 2017) as Leadership Energy.  This energy, which keeps them going despite the toughest of resistance and setbacks, is fuelled by deep clarity and conviction in the set of personal values, and a values-based purpose.  In the case of Jobs and Kalanick, they both started with a clear sense of purpose, but their value systems were flawed. One could argue that the charges against Kalanick make Jobs look like a saint despite his faults, but make no mistake. the fundamental reason for both their downfalls was their values – because ultimately values determine behaviour.

So, will Kalanick be able to make the great comeback and continue to change the world? While Jobs was a known autocrat, John Sculley eventually admitted in 2011 that Steve Jobs was the “greatest CEO ever”. Will the Uber board come around to the same conclusion one day?  It depends on how much Kalanick reflects on his values, and who/what he draws his inspiration from. While most leadership literature sing the virtues of democratic, all-inclusive leadership, in today’s age of breakneck speed, a fair bit of autocratic leadership is needed to innovate faster and more frequently. I know this because of a global research study we did for Open Source Leadership, where approximately 16,000 people from 28 countries told us they agreed.  We gave our respondents 11 leadership behaviours to choose from and asked them to pick the ones that great leaders have most in common. Five of the 11 were democratic, all-inclusive behaviours, five were top-down and autocratic, and one was a mix of both. In our questionnaire, the behaviours were mixed up in one list and were not labelled as one or the other. To our surprise, top-down autocratic statements ended up on the top of the list. Aggregate data from all countries is shown below in Figure 1.

There was absolutely no difference by country either. All 28 countries overwhelmingly chose top-down, autocratic behaviours as seen in Figure 2 below.

But wait. Autocratic leadership in the age of Facebook and WhatsApp? How is it even possible? According to my research, it is not only possible but necessary to thrive.  
The magic lies in practicing the five keys of positive autocracy which I explain in a lot more detail in the book:

1. Earn the right to use autocratic leadership – by consistently living the right values and pursuing the right purpose

2. Be autocratic about values and purpose while remaining humble and respectful with people

3. Provide ‘freedom within a framework’

4. Listen, learn, and reflect continuously

5. Forgive more often

Time will tell if Kalanick is able to garner enough emotional integrity and strength to question his values and change the core of his character.  If he is, he may well go down in history as one of the greatest corporate legends of the 21st century.  If he isn’t, it will be sad to see the waste of an amazing genius.

Rajeev Peshawaria is the author of Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders and Open Source Leadership. He is the CEO of The Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre. Prior positions include Global Chief Learning Officer of both Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley, and senior roles at American Express and Goldman Sachs.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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