‘Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, writes Andrew Hill, the FT’s management editor, ‘but it is the most dangerous form of leadership development.’ He draws important leadership lessons from the management turmoil at global taxi firm Uber (whose founder Travis Kalanick has just resigned) which stands ‘accused of ignoring sexual harassment complaints, putting driver safety at risk and misleading regulators.’
A company that in eight years has achieved a $68bn valuation will inevitably win admirers and imitators. Many see Uber’s style of hustling, confrontation and dog-east-dog competitiveness as something to emulate. ‘There must be thousands of Kalanick clones out there who saw the way the Uber founder’s aggressive approach and mimicked it at their own companies,’ writes Hill.
For some, the Kalanick approach will be celebrated. Others will concede that it is an unfortunate but necessary by-product of driving ambition; at the very least, essential for survival. They point to Steve Jobs as the classic example of bad behaviour that is excused in the bigger Apple story. But is success and insufferable arrogance two sides of the same coin? Bill Gates is quoted as saying: ‘So many of the people who want to be like Steve have the asshole side down. What they’re missing is the genius part.’
The article carries a warning for slavish and lazy imitators (typically describing themselves as ‘the Uber of…’ ). A rotten culture left unchecked can eventually destroy a promising company. Some 15 years ago, escalating accounting fraud at much-admired WorldCom led to its bankruptcy and jail for its CEO. Suddenly the company ceased to be a role model for thrusting capitalists.
With Kalanick’s departure can Uber change culture? Some basic management guidelines would certainly help: ‘set clear standards, measure compliance, reward those who live up to the new rules, get rid of those who do not.’ But change, as always, must start at the top.