What Might Have Happened at Uber: Protecting Leaders From Hubris

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There is an accepted Peter Drucker adage — “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

I do agree.

We’ve watched countless organizations suffer at the hands of their own culture. There are clear examples where the culture has morphed into such as incredibly difficult beast, that it leaves an organization at the brink of demise (think General Motors, News of the World, etc.) This week, we’ve learned in grave detail how Uber has seemingly turned a corner and driven directly into the muck — and at first glace we might place all blame on its culture.

However, we must recognize that culture is created by the leaders who shape that organization. Uber is no different. Those who have a hand in molding the mores, accepted practices, methods and mechanisms to support those practices. Leaders fail. They fail because they fall prey to the most human of mistakes. Mistakes of perspective that we have likely all made — but on a much grander scale that promises a widespread effect on countless individuals.

Culture can operate like a precarious game of dominoes. It is always a delicate game of balance. Once out of alignment, the entire game is halted. Ultimately, leaders have the responsibility to monitor that balance.

One element which affects this balance is hubris. A state when a leader passes into a “loss of objectivity zone” that can forever mark a company. Hubris is a disease of perspective — defined as “excessive pride or self confidence” — and the impact within an organization can be devastating.

I’ve written previously about why and how leaders fail. From Abercrombie to Wells Fargo to Volkswagen , the rise of leaders only seems to be matched by their cataclysmic demise. From falling prey to bias, to losing touch with customers — when looking back at the signs and symptoms, diagnosing a growing problem seems simple.

Hubris, you see — is a disease of perspective.

In a recent Atlantic article, Jerry Useem eloquently explores this damning by-product of leadership success. Borne of power and fueled by bias, hubris is an over-confidence that can only come from power that insulates. Research has captured the phenomenon, which is characterized by a lack of “mirroring” or empathy for others. They stop doing what likely helped them attain success. Power, it seems, can stop leaders from remaining effective.

But this question looms: How do we protect leaders from hubris?

I have my own ideas.

However, I would like to learn yours.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

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9 thoughts on “What Might Have Happened at Uber: Protecting Leaders From Hubris

  1. Questions…..ask questions. Before responding, before strategizing, before deciding, before stepping out in front to lead, or allowing others to step out.

    Question the answers too.

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  2. It’s not a perfect answer to this specific (UBER) situation however one way to avoid hubris and to make sure important decisions are being made with accurate information is to create and jealously guard open and safe feedback loops. Avoid being SNAFU’d: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/snafu-principle-your-dysfunctional-company-vincent-daino.

    These days it seems that much is driven by hubris and the cult of personality…it’s difficult sometimes not to get caught up in it…especially when leaders are celebrated as geniuses (and enriched) without actual measurable performance in many cases (real earnings for example…)

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  3. We recommend new leaders read Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry, so that they establish a pattern of asking questions and truly listening to responses. When leaders get cut off from feedback and learning, hubris multiplies.

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  4. It’s not a perfect answer to this specific (UBER) situation however one way to avoid hubris and to make sure important decisions are being made with accurate information is to create and jealously guard open and safe feedback loops. Avoid being SNAFU’d: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/snafu-principle-your-dysfunctional-company-vincent-daino.

    These days it seems that much is driven by hubris and the cult of personality…it’s difficult sometimes not to get caught up in it…especially when leaders are celebrated as geniuses (and enriched) without actual measurable performance in many cases (real earnings for example…)

    Like

  5. Every business has to take care of five stake holders if it has to have a long term sustainable leadership in its area of excellence. They are customer , employee, vendor , investor and society .
    Leaders in their eagerness to please some of the stakeholders will forget the other stakeholders or may even cause harm to the other ignored stakeholders . The down fall of the institute starts there. In the case of Uber, Kalanick seem to have ignored all the five stakeholders and hence his downfall.
    In the business process you may prioritise somebig these stakeholders , but you you can not ignore or do the business at the cost of other stakeholders.

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  6. Maintain a feedback system on all team.

    Human Relations office should use these feedbacks to improve the performance of each leader.

    Human Relations office should also use the exit interviews as a way of filtering concerns why people leave their leaders.

    I used the word “should” because we cannot force them to do their job in helping to improve the organizational harmony.

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  7. Great piece! In my experience as HR Director, there needs to be checks and balances. Some suggestions would be 1- BOD needs to have culture conversations to set expectations on the record with periodic check-ins with exec management, HR, and others not on the Board. 2- In the cases of venture backed firms where these cultures are prevalent, there should be covenants tied to funding, and equity vesting for accountability. Another suggestion would be to assign a third party firm to do an analysis and coaching.

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  8. Great article Marla. Pride and arrogance is definitely destructive and I believe the corporate culture need to promote humility as a core behavioral value.

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  9. Hubris is a character flaw. Hubris is a type of pride. Hubris is the chink in the armor that only makes itself known under extreme pressure. And “pride goeth before a fall.” I believe that leaders have to actively protect themselves from hubris.

    Yes, leaders lose perspective. When leaders rise quickly, their perspective changes quickly, their peers change, their surroundings change, and their ability to influence change also is strengthened. This is often the crossroad where effective leadership loses their vision. The leader, like a ship’s captain, making decisions that effect those employees, and customers, way down in the engine room, and invisible. What a change in perspective!

    Some leaders can effectively manage large companies from the top. The most effective leaders never lose direction. They keep their eye on the milestones, the markers that keep a company on the right track. Think of those huge super cargo ships and how difficult it is for them to turn around, and how much ocean it takes to make a turn. Companies are like that…one navigation error can take a long time to correct, and some navigation errors can put a company on the rocks, or in harms way.

    To keep perspective, leaders must have the view to see the milestones that mark the way to success, however, they must also make regular trips down to the engine room to make sure that things are being maintained, systems are in place, instructions are being followed, goals are being communicated, and everyone knows where they fit in relation to getting past the next milestone. A good leader knows his people from bridge to bilge and uses that knowledge to inspire his crew to excellence.

    Leaders who succumb to hubris have lost that connection to the myriad tasks that all come together to make a company, or a ship, work. Leaders with hubris create a culture where people do not feel free to make decisions, or even suggestions, that contribute to the group efforts. When the people in the engine room feel that their efforts are not recognized as mission critical to getting to the next milestone, and when the captain is not at the helm, and when the navigator does not notice a slight change in direction, and the ship is in hazardous waters, and no one feels like they can shake the captain awake, tremendous effort must be put in to get the ship back on course, or a collision is going to occur.

    Just ask the Captain of the U.S.S. Fitzgerald.

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