Does Success Inevitably Breed Arrogance and should Founders Prepare Better for Leadership?

“leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” Simon Senek.

There has been a lot of social media criticising the high-handed and dismissive tone taken by the Uber CEO in a recent video that went viral, and there have been some interesting articles that look beyond Mr Kalanick’s attitude in that exchange, to the very real issue of driver compensation and Uber’s business model. I would like to take a look somewhere in between, and consider what it is that allows someone like Mr Kalanick to intuitively feel like he has the right to behave like that with another human being.

“Founders have a disproportionate impact on company culture”

While Travis Kalanick is an extreme example of the culture, he is merely the sharp end of a rather unpleasant trend that seems prevalent in many of the founders and tech leaders in silicon valley and elsewhere. I am in two minds about the ultimate responsibility for organisational culture. I believe that employees who point blame upwards for bad behaviour are like soldiers who say “I was just following orders”, BUT the leader, and especially the founder of an organisation, does have a disproportionate impact on how things work in a company.

“the extreme competition in the start-up world pushes leaders to be aggressively confident”

In an environment where you have to be exceptional to succeed, and you have just over a 1% chance of becoming a unicorn (https://www.cbinsights.com/blog/unicorn-conversion-rate/), if you’re not truly confident of what you have to offer, you are very likely to be buried amidst the hundreds of other companies that never make it beyond start-up stage.

The problem is when this confidence in your product or service bleeds into your character and becomes a feeling of being personally special, better than others, more deserving, and therefore arrogant. The ease with which this happens may be due to a variety of factors. You may very well be intellectually, or technically gifted, which is what got you to where you are in the first place. However this does not give you the right to be any thing more than good at what you do, and many great intellects and inventors manage to be completely humbly and down to earth. Think Richard Branson or Warren Buffet.

“founders should prepare themselves more effectively for leadership”

From a mitigation perspective, it is important to see the context in which this sort of behaviour develops. Successful start-up founders are by definition really good at what they do, which is usually based on creativity, the ability to innovate, and technical expertise. This is all very useful when you are starting off and have a small group of like-minded people all focused on one thing and with similar mindsets. However once your company has grown beyond that initial core group and is now made up of several hundred or thousand staff, and potentially several million customers, the technical skills that got you to this point will not have not prepared you for what it means to be a leader at this level.

Mr Kalanick has promised to seek some guidance on his leadership style. As the founder of a start-up hoping to grow into the next Uber, it is probably better to prepare yourself for leadership more effectively than he did, so you do not get caught out the way he has, and end up affecting not only your own reputation, and that of your company. After all, who wants to give money to an A*****, either as an investor or as a customer.

In my work with start-up founders and entrepreneurs as well as senior corporate executives, some of the key behavioural traits I focus on are empathy and humility. While you can learn the former behaviourally and to some extent act it, the latter quality has to come from within, and it is only through a process of self reflection, that one can achieve it.

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