The Uber and the frog

How the mighty are fallen. Travis Kalanick is out, and Uber has become something of a headless horseman, with no current CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, VP of Engineering, or general counsel. Its alleged valuation has fallen by $18 billion and counting. How did this happen? Or maybe a better question is: how could this not have happened?

It really wasn’t so long ago, believe it or not, that Uber was everybody’s darling except for regulators and taxi cartels — and, presumably, employees who were reluctant to risk the consequences of speaking up against its toxic culture. Which, as I understand it, was by no means uniformly distributed across the company, but which clearly started at the top. Bit by bit, that culture began to curdle and metastasize, from invisibly to visibly poisonous.

Uber had two problems: 1) it would do anything to succeed, without regard for either the law1 or basic ethics; 2) per Susan Fowler’s now famous blog post, it fomented and perpetuated a deeply pernicious, jawdroppingly sexist internal culture. It may seem like 2) is independent of 1). After all, one can at least envision a hyperaggressive company that does not demean and discriminate against women, right?

In this real world, though, I don’t think those were two separate problems at all. In the real world, when a company and its executive braintrust are gladiatorial and win-at-all-costs, they will construct an abusive and domineering internal culture, and in this real world such cultures essentially always target women.

Executives don’t construct such cultures because this helps them to win — it clearly doesn’t. Or even because they necessarily consciously wanted to, and/or made a decision to do so. They do so purely because, like the tale of the scorpion and the frog, it’s their nature.

The trouble is, so much of the mythos of Silicon Valley is built on the legend of the hard-charging, brook-no-obstacles, take-no-prisoners, asshole-genius CEO. This is of course mostly the fault of Steve Jobs, who began his career by cheating his partner Steve Wozniak out of a bonus, and then went on become someone whose “way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody,” to quote none other than Jony Ive.

He was also, of course, a titanic, era-defining figure — but so many people, including far too many investors, seem to have looked at the Jobs “asshole titan” combination and concluded that becoming an asshole was a necessary prerequisite to becoming a titan. I put it to you that this is not just false, but that it is backwards; that Jobs become a titan despite being a giant asshole, rather than because of it.

Obviously CEOs have to be tough, have firm boundaries, and make hard, unpopular decisions. But there’s a huge gap between that and the kind of emotional sadism that Ive describes, or obtaining and mishandling the medical records of a rape victim, or fostering a work culture so awful that the widow of a new employee who committed suicide cites it as the cause, both of which apparently happened at Uber. It’s possible that there was a time when that kind of amoral assholedom was an advantage. But even if so, I think Uber now stands as proof that it is no longer acceptable, either culturally or practically.

So let’s hope that the fall of Uber’s CEO helps to signify the end of the era of the cult of the asshole CEO, and that the new standard is that companies should be founded and run by fundamentally decent people. Not because it’s the right thing to do (although it is.) But because employees, VCs, customers, consumers, and the wider world are, gradually but increasingly, simply no longer willing to accept the kind of culture for which Travis Kalanick was ultimately responsible.

1I’m willing to stipulate the nuance that Uber was something of a special case, in that they were working in a domain hidebound by the regulatory capture by the taxi cartels, and so, unusually, their disrespect for existing regulations, which in this case served largely to protect parasitic rentiers, was an advantage. Doesn’t change the larger point though.