What People Teach Us: Travis Kalanick — Temper vs. Leadership

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick posted a “Profound Apology” on the company’s website to atone for or, at least, begin atoning for his behavior in a video which surfaced of him berating an Uber driver, while he was a fare in the man’s car, who had challenged him on the company’s policies which purportedly cost the driver $97,000 in losses.

In the posted apology, Kalanick states “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.”

“…receiving leadership coaching…is no substitute for mental illness therapy, treatment, or counseling of any kind.”

A few things.

First, I applaud Kalanick for making the admission, realizing he needs to change, and that he needs to change “fundamentally,” meaning that there’s a greater depth of change which needs to be achieved than just the mea culpa. But, to be honest, in this day and age, where we’ve all seen so many egregious and regrettable acts caught on video, it’s not the apology that can necessarily atone but the steps that the person actually takes toward making those offended whole.

In the age of video capturing everything, we have to wonder if you are atoning solely because you were caught or will you truly be genuine in your reparations going forward? Society has become desensitized to caught-in-the-act apologies. They don’t mean what they used to.

Second, I do like hearing that he self-admittedly needs “leadership help” due to my work in the field, but as much as I appreciate that admission, lack of leadership ability is not really what is at play here.

This has nothing to do with leadership. No. It’s all temper.

Might his temper, which triggered his outburst in the video, also play into his work and business at Uber in the role as top leader? It might. Uber and its CEO are, unfortunately, known to have business and publicity issues which reflect poorly on the brand but this post serves only to examine how he acted in the car and what he offered in the apology he subsequently issued. In fact, Uber subsequently lost its President, Jeff Jones, who stated his “beliefs and approaches to leadership” deviated from those he witnessed at the company.

What do you think? Do you think Kalanick’s behavior might have contributed to Jones’ decision to resign after only six months on the job?

Because there exists the personal side to our leaders and executives, in addition to his or her work side, the personal reputation can reflect on that person’s credibility, which plays into his or her overall leadership role in his or her company. But this particular case is about temperament overall, not temperament in leadership.

“Great leadership is built on great temperament but neither leadership development nor coaching is going to fix an underlying current of bad temperament.”

We need to consider the personal interactions separate from his leadership interactions, and this is for a specific reason: temper destabilizes rationality and reasoning, and needs to be harnessed in order for a strong foundation to exist upon which leadership can be built.

Great leadership is built on great temperament but neither leadership development nor coaching is going to fix an underlying current of bad temperament. A bad temper can contribute to a leadership issue but, in-and-of-itself, it is not a leadership issue.

You have to fix the temper issue before believing you need “leadership help.”

Third, it’s time to keep people accountable for their actions. Anyone can apologize using the right mix of words and emotions to make it seem genuine, but it’s your actions after the fact which will dictate whether or not you truly understood the seriousness of the offense and what it meant.

In the end, understanding the distinction between what leadership coaching is and isn’t is very important. Those seeking leadership coaching need to understand in advance of receiving leadership coaching that coaching is no substitute for mental illness therapy, treatment, or counseling of any kind. It’s important for both the coach and client to understand what the expectations are for both sides before entering the main sessions of coaching.

As much clarity as coaching can provide, it can’t rectify an underlying issue of temperament.

So, no, leadership help will not do anything for the angry outburst. It’s not supposed to, Mr. Kalanick.

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