On Topic: We all make mistakes

“I need leadership help,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote in a post on the company’s website. (Bloomberg photo by Udit Kulshrestha)
“I need leadership help,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote in a post on the company’s website. (Bloomberg photo by Udit Kulshrestha)

The whole thing is pretty remarkable. Not just for the ill-tempered comments Uber CEO Travis Kalanick directed toward an Uber driver on Super Bowl Sunday — we’ve become used to people in charge behaving badly in public, sad to say.

Agreed, if you watch the video, recorded via a dashboard camera,what Kalanick says to the driver who’s just claimed that Uber’s fare-pricing policies have bankrupted him is pretty jerk-like.

“Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own ----,” Kalanick says before exiting the car.

But after the video became popular YouTube viewing — and amid a basketload of other distressing Uber Technologies headlines that have included operating self-driving cars illegally in California, 200,000-plus customers uninstalling their Uber apps during the ride-hailing company’s spat with a New York taxi union, and accusations by Waymo of stealing trade secrets, not to mention issues involving sexual harassment at the company and use of its program called Greyball to trick law-enforcement authorities in several cities — Kalanick did something else remarkable.

He apologized.

“This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit I need leadership help, and I intend to get it,” the CEO posted to the company’s website on Feb. 28. “To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement. My job as your leader is to lead and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud.

I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.”

Let’s not be skeptical about Kalanick’s public epiphany: As all self-help guides will tell you, admitting a problem is the first step.

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But what he does next is more important — particularly given his employees, board members and the media are watching to see how he goes about this maturation process. After all, he’s not just talking about how he behaves as a person but how he leads his famous company.

Fortunately for Mr. Kalanick, the modern world is packed with leadership coaches and mentors, seminars, books, videos and apps. A guru is an email — and credit-card verification — away.

To be honest, I’ve found useful management tidbits, both philosophical and practical, in lots of places, some of which I’ve mentioned in this column before. In the writings of Peter F. Drucker and Aaron Sorkin, for examples.

At a business-newspaper chain where I worked in its fledgling years, the boss insisted his managers read the Horatio (“Gunner, Fire Again!”) Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester. Their overarching moral: If you’re in a sinking lifeboat with your crew while under attack by Napoleon’s navy, peel off your coat and grab an oar.

My favorite do-some-planning-before-you-leap message comes from a 2013 newspaper comic strip, “Zits,” by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. It depicts one character smashing painfully to earth — with a large-lettered KEE-RASH — after attempting to skateboard down from a chimney top. In the final panel, his friend calmly takes a photo of the wreckage with his phone and comments, “Not your fault, dude. Nobody saw that coming.”

Some of us at The Gazette right now are reading the Poynter Institute’s Jill Geisler’s 2012 book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know.” I’ve not finished it yet — I skip around, blame it my pithy attention span — but so far everything has fit into one of two categories:

1. Yeah, yeah, I knew that, or ...

2. Right, good point — I hadn’t seen it quite that way.

Early on — in the very first chapter, in fact — Geisler makes a point that might help Uber’s Kalanick and all of us, no matter where we might stand on the supervisor spectrum of responsibility: Managers, she writes, make mistakes.

Blame it on haste, impatience, being underinformed or unprepared. Maybe it was bad math. But we all make mistakes. We disappoint others.

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As managers, we sometimes get caught between those we supervise and those to whom we ourselves report. Sometimes we don’t communicate as well as we could or should.

And on occasion we simply screw up.

Heaven knows, I have. My biggest fear on this job is that I’ll somehow introduce an error into a writer’s story I’m editing. After all, that’s not my name in the byline and you readers are going to blame the reporter, not me, when you see something wrong in a story.

During my time thus far at The Gazette, I can recall twice in which I made especially gigantic, stupid mistakes. Yes, I’ve made other slips, but I’m talking unmissable egregious errors.

Both mistakes occurred because I was in hurry. Both stories, by knowledgeable reporters, were accurate. The blunders were entirely my fault.

In “Work Happy,” Geisler’s answer is, if we’ve been working all along to build up trust and transparency among those with whom we work, and after we admit our error and explain how we came to mess up, we’ll have a good chance of being forgiven, trusted again and moving ahead.

In the two examples of mine, those reporters eventually forgave me — and no sooner than they should have, I hasten to say. I know I got lucky, and I’m appreciative of it.

And I’m not drawing comparisons, as what I do for a living is nothing like running a $70 billion global organization. But maybe, if he’s sincere, Travis Kalanick still has a shot at rebuilding his employees’ and stakeholders’ faith in him as a leader, and in Uber Technologies as a good place work.

Maybe he could take up an oar.

l Michael Chevy Castranova is business editor of The Gazette; (319) 398-5873; michaelchevy.castranova@thegazette.com

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