The Uber Fiascos Show That All Start-Ups Need To Grow Up

03/02/2017 09:27 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2017

It’s certainly an understatement to say that the ride-sharing phenomenon Uber, and more specifically Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick, is having a pretty bad start to 2017. First there was the #DeleteUber campaign after Kalanick agreed to serve on President Trump’s advisory council and the company appeared to take advantage of a taxi strike following the President’s initial travel ban. Then a widely-circulated post by a former employee alleged a pattern and a culture of sexism and harassment and suppression of complaints about both by women. Finally, a video was recently released of Kalanick berating one of his own drivers, including the line, “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own [stuff]. They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck!”

Indeed. Perhaps, upon reflection, Kalanick decided to take a bit of his own advice, and issued a statement the day after the video went public accepting responsibility for his actions and noting, “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.” It was, according to the Washington Post, “a rare admission of vulnerability” from the start-up’s CEO. Whether it’s a sincere admission or merely an attempt at damage-control, it’s obvious that he does need some guidance.

It’s not surprising. Start-ups get their start in a garage, in a dorm room, on the back of a napkin, and for a while it’s okay that they continue in that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mode. It’s what makes them attractive to many of today’s young professionals: no rules, work hard, have fun, change the industry and maybe even the world.

But at some point any successful start-up by necessity has to become the very thing it was started to disrupt: a bureaucracy. At a certain point they go past the tipping point and need policies, procedures, human resources departments, and yes, effective leadership. But nothing in the evolution of a start-up is engineered to develop leadership competency. There are no leadership development programs, succession plans, or formal mentoring or coaching.

The good news here is that there are some key lessons from Uber’s recent experience that we all can learn and apply, no matter where we are in the organizational chart. In fact, the sooner you learn these lessons, the better equipped you will be to one day assume that positional leadership role.


  • Leadership is action, not position. We often attribute “leadership” to those in positional leadership roles: manager, director, president, CEO, and so on. But as Kalanick’s behavior demonstrates, just because you have the title, it doesn’t mean that you are, in fact, an effective leader. And, vice versa, just because you DON’T have the title does not mean you can’t lead from where you are. In many organizations the most important leaders, the ones with the most influence, operate from the bottom and the middle of the organization, not the top. Think about the behaviors and the actions that you take each and every day. Are these behaviors befitting someone who deserves to be called leader?

  • EQ matters. Emotional intelligence – your ability to regulate your own behaviors and your interactions with others through self-awareness, self-management, and relationship-management – has become a key leadership skill. It’s not enough to just be technically proficient. You also have to be in relationship with the people who are contributing to your success, whether it’s the customer, co-workers, or, in this case, the drivers who make sure that the Uber model works. The good thing about EQ, unlike IQ, is that you can develop these skills with intentional practice. Pay attention to your emotional, verbal, and physical responses. Practice not responding. And, seek out feedback from a trusted colleague who will be honest with you.

  • Don’t forget the headline test. Way back when paper newspapers were an actual thing, there was this saying: Would you want to read this on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow? Or, another version: Would you want your mother to know about this? Kalanick is living this test right now. Certainly, the lifespan of news stories has become a nanosecond. But, every time anything is written about him from now on, it will be linked to these stories, so in essence, they live forever. Be mindful of your actions and your words. Acting with integrity is by far the number one leadership characteristic that other people value. Act as though someone was recording your every moment – both on the clock and off of it – and putting it online, tomorrow.

  • We all need help. Finally, don’t wait for a crisis to arise to seek out leadership development and leadership coaching. It’s not a failure to admit that you need help. We all do. None of us were born leaders. We learn these things over time through intentional practice, skill development, and mentoring and coaching. You can start, today, by seeking a leadership mentor or coach to give you guidance and feedback as you work on your skill set. True vulnerability comes not in admitting that you’ve made a mistake once you get caught. It comes in admitting that you aren’t perfect and you want to get better in the first place.