Leadership lessons for Uber's Travis Kalanick: Listen to feedback, be humble and more

There have been several cases of CEOs and head honchos of companies getting caught for misdemeanor. Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick is the latest in the long list. For the uninitiated, Kalanick was caught on video speaking rudely at a driver who worked for his own company. Kalanick, however, apologised for his unruly behaviour.


In an email to his employees, he said he was ashamed for treating the driver disrespectfully; and apologised to the driver too. "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," he wrote.

What are the leadership lessons that Kalanick and people in top management should remember when they are leading a company? Firstpost spoke with Debashis Sanyal, dean, Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS) and Amit Nandkeolyar, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behavior, ISB, and Lata Dhir, Associate Professor with expertise in Organizational Psychology, Behavioural Science, Applied Psychology at SPJIMR . Here's what they had to say:

Concept of life learning: Learning never stops and this is important for everyone, not just to a CEO, says Debashis Sanyal, Dean, Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies. “You should be keen to learn throughout life and also to unlearn what is not acceptable. This is very critical,” Sanyal said.

File image of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Reuters

File image of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Reuters

Learn to accept feedback: The importance of humility cannot be overstated. And that is not a trait only for a CEO. As a person goes higher up in the company, it is rare to hear criticism or feedback. In the instance of the Uber driver in the US, it was a good opportunity for Kalanick to hear it from the ground as it were and he should have listened to the driver instead of getting angry or fight with him like he did, says Amit Nandkeolyar, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behavior, ISB.  Uber is not a traditional company and is an aggregator between customers and cab drivers. Drivers are not employees of the company and they can move from Uber to its competitor. “Incidents like these do not help and attract negative publicity,” says Nandkeolyar, adding that the video was damning for the CEO. A leader has to be humble to listen to what he has set out to listen like Kalanick did by travelling in the cab. "He cannot expect to hear only positive things about him or his company. He has to be open to listening to negative comments, too," says Lata Dhir of SPJIMR.

Be self-aware: One of the qualities of a leader as he goes up the career rung is to be aware of his strengths and weaknesses. "You have to self-introspect. Get people you trust to give you feedback on your technical skills but your managerial skills -- angry outbursts, ability to listen to opposing views. Basically what derails your growth as a leader," points out Lata Dhir of SPJIMR. She says that a leader should be aware of behaviour patterns that are negative and also capitalise on his strengths.

Be inspirational: A leader is one who has followers. It does not say much about an individual's leadership skills if he has no followers, says Sanyal. If a leader does not allow space for conversation and divergent views from employees, he cannot be called a leader in the true sense of the term. A leader must walk the talk. In a digital world as it is increasingly getting to be, it is important for a leader to watch his words and actions.


“It was graceful of Kalanick to have accepted responsibility of his actions,” said Sanyal. That shows maturity as a leader, he said. “Sending the email to employees and apologising to the driver were positive steps by Kalanick,” says Nandkeolyar.

Many other organisations globally have had their image damaged in public by acts of its top management. What is important to note is how proactive the top bosses have been when such situations have arisen, Nandkeolyar said.

Offer excitement to employees: A leader should influence the change he has brought in the organisation. There will be difficult times with competition, unsettling political climate, etc. However, that is what a leader should be able to address as the chief whip of the organisation. His leadership qualities are about addressing these issues, says Sanyal. “There will be complexities and challenges in business always. Leaders have to lead the company through difficult times and also infuse confidence in employees about the company and the leaders themselves,” Sanyal adds.

Nandkeolyar says the Uber driver had concerns with the low rates he was earning and he would have other commitments like mortgage, for instance. A good leader would assuage employees' concerns. Good companies link personal goals of employees with the targets of the company, says Nandkeolyar. If a company is seen to be doing well and that does not reflect in the manner of a bonus or increment of the employee, the latter is bound to be disheartened. “As a leader you should have a conversation with your employees and earn their trust in you and the organisation,” he says.


Published Date: Mar 03, 2017 02:44 pm | Updated Date: Mar 03, 2017 03:03 pm



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