What Uber leadership can teach us all

Posted by on Mar 2, 2017 in Uncategorized | No Comments

What can Uber leadership teach us?

We’ve all been there.  Someone says something about what you did or said and you feel yourself prickle.  Your mind starts to race with thoughts and you quickly move towards your defence strategy (fight, freeze or flight). It’s never pleasant to be on the receiving end of criticism, particularly when it feeds your insecurities.  Unfortunately, many leaders react.  Fortunately, they can choose a different response but to do this they’ve got to be self aware and own their shadow.

Travis Kalanick, CEO Uber was in the news yesterday. He was recorded in conversation with an Uber driver who was complaining about his falling income and felt that the changing fare structure was to blame.  (the conversation starts at minute 3.57)

Travis has publically apologised for this behaviour saying, ‘My job is to lead this and that starts with with behaving in a way that makes us all proud.  This is now what I did and it cannot be explained away.”


What actually happened?

What I observe happening is a frustrated driver initiating a conversation about ratings and prices. Kalanick reacts defensively and refutes what’s said and then moves to blame.  The outcome is the driver feels misunderstood, unseen, unheard and made wrong.  It’s a lose / lose.

What could be different?

  1. We’ve got to be self aware and understand leaders and followers are all human and we have our own shadow side.
  2. Being emotionally self aware would have meant that in the moment the driver engaged in a difficult conversation, Kalinick would have sensed frustration in his body and this would have been a cue for him to choose a different response.

But as everyone moves to commenting on how shocking his behaviour is and the culture that this then creates within Uber I am not surprised.  I’ve seen defensive leadership behaviours in every organisation I’ve worked in.  Why?  Because we’re human and we’re not taught how to manage our emotions.  Instead we’re wired to drive results, to succeed and to make the grade.

Some leaders move to these aggressive displays, others move to more passive Machiavellian tactics: approval seeking, pleasing, dependence.  Owning that we all get defensive because we’re human is the doorway to freedom and an even bigger impact.

When we come from a calm place of listening we can sense what the driver was feeling underneath his complaint.  We can lean in to his perspective and have empathy for his frustration. The Uber drivers I’ve had all share a common goal, to provide a better life for their families.  It’s a need that when understood can be compassionately connected with.  But when we’re in reaction, we can’t connect.  Instead we discharge our anger in the form of blame and this erodes communication and connection.


  1. As a leader you aren’t god.  You’re human.  As such you are going to screw up and are likely to get defensive.  Identify what triggers it.  One of the most common one is perceived criticism or blame.
  2. Become aware of the physiological signals that you’re about to get defensive.  Do you feel your heart racing, do you move forward, gesticulate, temperature rise or get knots in your stomach?
  3. Own your defensive behaviours. Perhaps you attack and wield your power and opinion, or maybe you undermine and need everything to be perfect or you might simply do nothing and smile sweetly whilst thinking to yourself “asshole”. Notice the language patterns you use, “Quite frankly,” “You …” because they’ll heighten your awareness in the moment. Choosing to own your shadow is a powerful leadership act.  Pretending it isn’t there and doesn’t ever happen to you is foolhardy.

Every leader needs to know how to manage challenging conversations inside and outside the office.

It’s why I’m offering two hours of crucial conversations training.  If you and your team are ready to explore how to have crucial conversations, shoot me an email and I’ll send you the details