Uber Shows Why Silicon Valley Needs to Rewrite Its Hero-Founder Myth

Jun 21, 2017

Travis Kalanick, Uber's brash and embattled CEO, is out.

After months of pummeling bad news for Kalanick and his eight-year-old ride-hailing startup, pressure from investors in the near-$70 billion company have forced Kalanick to relinquish his role. In the wake of allegations and investigations of systemic sexual discrimination at Uber as well as a series of public relations disasters and serious legal accusations, Kalanick had last week announced he would take a leave of absence. That wasn't enough for investors who worried about how quickly the company could pick itself back up and find new leadership with its founder lurking in the background. Now, Uber will be able to offer candidates for the key CEO and chief operating officer positions full control of a company with a presence in 76 countries and billions in the bank. Kalanick will retain his seat on the board along with his influential voting shares of the company's stock.

What happened—and what happens next—at Uber will likely be stuff of business-school case studies for years to come. Uber, despite its massive size, faces difficulties that include everything from its profitability to its legal battles with regulators and competitors. And it must reboot its culture, something that will take some time if the recommendations of an exhaustive investigation by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s law firm are any indication.

In a recent Time cover story, my colleague Katy Steinmetz and I framed the trouble at Uber as a test of some of Silicon Valley's long-held values. We concluded:

Technology is advancing so rapidly that, at this point, it is always going to outpace the law, the government or the public’s capacity to fully understand its ramifications. If Uber’s stunning stumble proves anything, it’s that in the absence of any rule makers that can keep up with them, the architects of the new economy–which may be another way of saying, the new world–must hold themselves accountable.

There is another, more personal lesson in the story of Kalanick: what is to be learned from the examples of icons like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Kalanick had a reputation for being a jerk. This brawler persona was useful for Uber which, unlike other giant tech firms such as Google and Facebook, it was born into conflict—with lawmakers, workers, and competitors. But it also frequently went too far and reportedly engendered an aggressive culture that, according to Holder, provided cover for misbehavior of the worst sort.

Jobs and Gates were also famously difficult. Former Time editor Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs is replete with examples of the "Bad Steve," from baroque insults (Google: "Steve Jobs FDA" for one particularly NSFW example) to impossibly high standards. Gates too was famously aggressive, building Microsoft into the dominant software company of its sometimes through quasi-monopolistic tactics. As they do, these myths have outgrown reality over time. And, because they're salacious, they obscure the truth of both Jobs and Gates as complicated human beings. Selectively drawing from them excuses for fundamentally confrontational leadership is a mistake.

It is more instructive is to study their full arcs. In the monomyth, the hero must experience a period of painful exile in order to return to his community with the power to change things. "The descent into Hell is easy," wrote Virgil, "but to climb back up and reach the rarer air, there lies the difficulty, there the labor." Jobs and Gates could not become world-changing figures without having descended into metaphorical Hell. For Jobs, it was being fired from Apple and founding NeXT. For Gates, it was the humbling United States v. Microsoft Corp. anti-trust case of the early-2000s. What they did after, pulling off the greatest corporate turn around in the history of capitalism and creating one of the most impactful philanthropic institutions ever, respectively, can only be understood and mined for lessons keeping the full picture in view.

All leaders need a certain amount of guile and toughness. Inventing the future is dangerous business, after all. Kalanick, who at 40 is considerably older than many other Silicon Valley founder types, may or may not come out of this exile a different person. But for founders trying to learn the lessons of the giants that came before them, studying the lows along with the highs is essential.

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