Travis Kalanick Leadership Style

Travis Kalanick grew to fame and ultimately infamy during his tenure as boss at Uber (UBER). His role in growing a company from a simple idea to a worldwide behemoth is legendary.

The idea was simple: push a button on a phone and a luxury car would pull up curbside to transport you wherever you wanted.

The execution was so much harder. How to get the word out to prospective customers to jump into strangers’ cars? How to build a supply of drivers willing to transport strangers? 

A massive behavioral shift among consumers was needed to make Uber work. But Travis famously succeeded, until his legendary downfall.

So what was Travis Kalanick’s leadership style that catapulted him and his company to success and ultimately led to his downfall?

What Type of Leader is Travis Kalanick?

Leaders like Travis Kalanick tend to move at a rapid pace, and often break things along the way.

Famously, Travis once told a competitor CEO that he would “see him in the trenches” – a clear indication that Travis viewed his role as CEO similar to that of a military general leading the troops. Moreover, business was a competition that wasn’t win or lose so much as it was life or death.

Kalanick is famously intense, demanding his employees go above and beyond to hit targets and reach goals. Some claim Uber even used “dirty tactics” along the way against its primary rival Lyft in order to win customers.

And then there’s the culture he instilled that some claim fostered a chauvinistic work environment. In the end, Uber paid out millions following sexual assault claims. What kind of leader presided over such a workplace?

Is Travis Kalanick a Laissez Faire Leader?

Kalanic wanted to hover and be involved in every aspect of Uber’s machinations. According to insiders, he wanted his hands involved in the minutia. So he certainly couldn’t have been called a laissez-faire leader.

Kalanick could have remained in power as Uber’s CEO if he had put a bit more stock into cleaning up messes – but many – including his board ultimately – claim he was the problem. He eventually resigned his position as CEO, but some say too little too late.

Is Travis Kalanick a Transformational Leader?

It’s hard to leap back in time and think of a world without Uber but if you can for a moment step back and consider a world of taxi companies, it’s clear that Travis has transformed the world of transportation.

The taxi business was notoriously fragmented. Different owners in different cities. City regulations were different across the USA let alone the globe. 

Catching a cab meant standing curbside and hoping one would drive by in big cities. Calling for a cab meant waiting a long time.

Then Uber came along and waiting times collapsed, and the experience was better because drivers were rated.

Undoubtedly, Travis Kalanick is a transformational leader. Many have attempted to replicate his successes globally.

Indeed the “Uber for X” became the catchy phrase for wannabe entrepreneurs looking to raise capital. Soon, there were Ubers for scooter, helicopters, and even planes.

Kalanick Post Uber

After leaving Uber to the surprise of many, Kalanick was running silent. In 2019, however, he spent millions of dollars jumpstarting a hush-hush project known as CloudKitchens.

Fast forward to 2020 when the world – the whole world – is plunged into a pandemic. There’s no way Kalanick could have seen that coming – no one did. But the entire premise of “ghost kitchens” could prove to be the disruption the restaurant industry needs to remain relevant.

Ghost kitchens don’t have any staff. Instead, gig workers from app-based companies like GrubHub and DoorDash check in at strategically placed tablets to pick up their clients’ food orders which are prepared by the few cooks onsite.

This concept is incredibly smart. It lines up with the numerous people staying at home by choice or by forced lockdowns who are spending their time binge-watching Netflix (NFLX) shows and who just don’t feel like cooking.

It also plays into an unintentional push to increase federal minimum wages. Restaurant businesses notoriously operate on razor-thin margins as it is. Employees are a large percentage of a restaurant owner’s expenses.

Just think – you’re a restaurant owner. You have loyal customers. They love your food! If you didn’t have to pay waitresses, hostesses, or cleaning staff – your margins could increase.

Introduce a ghost kitchen. You also don’t have to pay high rent. These kitchens are in communal space – other restaurants share the kitchen space with you – and in an inexpensive location.

Delivery drivers from the apps mentioned above are independent contractors, so you also don’t have to pay them benefits or sick pay – and you’re not responsible for making sure they get an annual vacation either. Not having to schedule all the usual personnel also means you get some of your life back.

So, Kalanick is definitely on to something here – but can he keep his fingers out of the cookie jar and build a team he trusts?

Characteristics Of Travis Kalanick Leadership Style

The characteristic that is immediately associated with Kalanick Is aggressive. In some situations, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in today’s environment, aggressive leadership styles are often a complex issue.

For instance, entrepreneurship by its very definition requires a bit of hard-headedness and passion. This helps a leader bulldoze barriers to company growth.

Just how hard must it have been to start and lead a revolutionary business like Uber? Some might conclude that only the most relentless, competitive, and aggressive person could pull it off.

If you look at the behavior of some of our greatest leaders, in business or other positions, you’re quick to notice there’s a very fine line between confidence and arrogance.

At the same time, though, today’s business world doesn’t accept such stringent and controlling types of leadership. As more companies decide on transparency and inclusivity, Kalanick’s leadership style can come off as more of an arrogant “—-”.

This risks hurting both company morale and employee performance, as well as the credibility and reputation of their leader.

But, if you’ve followed Kalanick from the beginning, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking he took his role way too far. 

Is Travis Kalanick a Visionary Leader?

Travis Kalanick’s leadership style, while not necessarily what up-and-coming entrepreneurs should emulate, might be somewhat necessary for a company’s continued success.

To be clear – Uber’s culture and scandals with Kalanick at the helm was nothing to condone. With that said, there’s something to the notion that a person who’s unafraid of confidence and aggression can be a worthwhile leader.

But transparency, honesty, and frankness are also qualities that must be part of the recipe for that type of leadership to work.

For instance, just ask anyone who had the “pleasure” of working under Steve Jobs. He was known for aggression – some have even referred to Jobs as downright abrasive. But today, he’s celebrated for what his company achieved thanks to his leadership qualities.

Travis Kalanick Leadership Style Conclusion

If there’s anything to be learned from Kalanick, it might be what not to do when in a leadership role.

Here are seven lessons in leadership we’ve learned from Kalanick and Uber:

  1. If you’re wrong, admit you’re wrong. Say you’re sorry and say it fast.
  2. If you’re drowning as a leader, ask for help from a third party. An objective one.
  3. When you realize you’re the problem, take swift action.
  4. If your executive coworkers are part of the problem, get rid of them.
  5. Keep cleaning house until the house is clean.
  6. Have meaningful values and incorporate those values through every level of your company.
  7. Check the mirror…

It’s probably quite easy for any company today to feel superior to Kalanick’s Uber. But the truth is, things like sexual harassment don’t occur in an Uber bubble – these things happen at all types and sizes of businesses.

Wrap Up

So, how will Kalanick fare in his new venture? His CloudKitchens could end up hitting the same brick walls that plagued Uber and other tech companies using apps and independent contractors to execute orders.

For instance, several state legislatures are going after big tech and other companies they consider trying to skirt various employment laws.

California introduced AB5, a bill aimed at companies like Uber who, in state governments’ eyes, are intentionally misclassifying employees in an effort to avoid paying benefits and other payments normally given to employees.

Additionally, states claim companies do this in avoidance of various employment related taxation.

It will certainly be interesting as we continue to watch Kalanick’s newest chapter unfold. 

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