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 actually wasnt so long ago, believe it or not, that Uber was everybodys darling except for regulators and taxi cartels and, presumably, employees who were reluctant to hazard 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 law 1 or basic ethics; 2) per Susan Fowlers now famous blog post, it provoked and perpetuated a profoundly pernicious, jawdroppingly sexist internal culture. It may seem like 2) is independent of 1 ). After all, one can at least envisage a hyperaggressive company that does not humiliate and discriminate against females, right?

In this real world, though, I dont guess those were two separate problems at all. In the real world, where a corporation 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 basically always target females.

Executives dont construct such cultures because this helps them to win it clearly doesnt. Or even because they inevitably consciously wanted to, and/ or made a decision to do so. They do so strictly because, like the tale of the scorpion and the frog, its 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 largely 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 someone, 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 bounds, and attain hard, unpopular decisions. But theres 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 promoting a work culture so nasty that the widow of a new employee who committed suicide cites it as the cause, both of which apparently happened at Uber. Its possible that there was a period 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 lets hope that the autumn of Ubers 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 basically decent people. Not because its the right thing to do( even if it is .) But because employees, VCs, customers, customers, and the rest of the world are, gradually but increasingly, simply no longer willing to accept the kind of culture for which Travis Kalanick was ultimately responsible.


1 Im willing to stipulate the subtlety 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. Doesnt change the larger point though.

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