Uber, Huffington, and Tactical Servant Leadership

Here’s an understatement: Uber is flawed. It has posted more losses than any tech company. Ever. On top of that, Uber’s public image has been dragged brutally, but not undeservingly, through the mud for the last several years. That said, they have more than a little wiggle room. Uber has raised more money from investors than almost any other tech company and, in December of 2018, they filed for an IPO which, some have predicted, may see the company valued at $120 billion. They have some room to mess up.

But going public places a lot of pressure on CEO Dara Khosrowshahi to change that image. He’s going to. But not without help from Media maven and outspoken Uber board member Arianna Huffington. Huffington joined the board back in 2016, before then-CEO Travis Kalanick and over 20 other employees were ousted following an internal investigation into the company’s culture and sexual harassment allegations conducted by Former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Arianna Huffington has been a force of reason for a company in chaos, both internally and externally. She has reportedly been a major source of influence in the boardroom as she’s campaigned to recruit a diverse team of leaders and board members to guide the company toward a better future. Of Uber’s 12 board members, there are three women and five people of color — a stark contrast from the heterogeneity of Uber’s contemporaries.

But there isn’t a one-to-one translation between diversity in leadership and a clean company culture. But Huffington is making waves in that department as well. In a 2017 interview with CNBC’s Make It, she summed up Uber’s mantra for the future as “We do the right thing. Period.” This mantra was echoed in a LinkedIn post from Khosrowshahi laying out the companies “new cultural norms”.

While it’s hard to pinpoint a company’s actions to the influence of a specific board member, several industry titans have been quick to throw credit her way. Uber’s former Chief Brand Officer, Bozoma Saint John, told the New York Times, “Arianna gave me all of the problems at Uber straight, no chaser… It’s the magic of what makes her so believable.” Oak Investment partner Fred Harmon told the Times, “When you get down to making decisions, you can focus on how persuasive she is.”

So where does this persuasion come from? Well, according to Fred Harmon, it may be rooted in servant leadership. In the Times article, Harmon was quoted as saying, “[Arianna] sows the seeds of trust and makes you feel her interests are aligned with yours.” This, in theory, may not seem like servant leadership — a management style defined by prioritizing the best interests of others to inspire positivity and productivity.

In practice, this is exactly what Arianna Huffington does. She makes others feel like she’s advocating for them. Uber’s board knew a culture change was in order when Huffington stepped into the picture back in 2016. This change already had buy-in from the board. This included buy-in from then-CEO Travis Kalanick, who she described as “on a journey of self-improvement”. Huffington quickly developed a personal friendship with Kalanick, and positioned herself to make his goals her goals. She was able to leverage that friendship to convince Kalanick to step away from his role as Uber’s chief, following months and the sudden passing of Kalanick’s mother executive in 2017 — a key element of her reasoning being that, for Uber to improve its internal character, Travis would have to take the time to reconsider his own.

All the while, Huffington positioned herself as the servant leader; told Kalanick what needed to be said, no matter how painful, because she cared about seeing his vision fulfilled. In an all-hands meeting announcing Kalanick’s decision, the results of Holder’s investigation, and the outline of Uber’s renewed commitment to developing a positive company culture, board member David Bonderman drew criticism for a sexist remark. The timing of his comment made for bad optics in the kickoff to a new Uber. Shortly thereafter, Bonderman resigned. Huffington, again, was credited as having a major influence on this decision. As with Kalanick’s decision, Huffington never positioned herself as pushing her own agenda, but rather as someone who would be there to support the company and its board in building the culture they desired. In a statement reported on by the New York Times, Huffington was quoted saying “I appreciate David doing the right thing for Uber at this time of critical cultural changes at the company.” Bonderman echoed this sentiment, stating “I do not want my comments to create distraction as Uber works to build a culture of which we can be proud. I need to hold myself to the same standards that we’re asking Uber to adopt.”

Looking at these instances of Arianna Huffington exerting her influence, we begin to see a theme; perhaps, a strategy. Her role in helping Uber make the tough decisions necessary to bring about the much-needed change in culture never involved directly asserting her own opinions and agendas, but rather involved holding others accountable for their own publicly-stated goals and visions. Let’s be cleared, this may be a tactical, bordering on Machiavellian form of servant leadership, but it’s servant leadership nonetheless. On the surface, Huffington is doing nothing more than working in the best interest of others to achieve their shared goals. Things, of course, may look different the second the curtain of public statements and optics is peeled back. But, because Uber had unanimous buy-in from the board on changing its public image, the private politics involved in getting there don’t matter.

This is why Arianna Huffington has been so successful in contributing to the positive change Uber needed to save its reputation. She knows how to play the game. In the boardroom of a vilified company, she created heroes. Huffington knows how to make flawed people look good while removing them from positions of power by holding them to the standards they publicly state to lead by, but may otherwise not intend to follow through on. In doing so, her influence as a force for positive change grows. At the same time, she’s making Uber’s vision for a positive company culture a reality and not the PR spin it very easily could have been.Her strategy for the tactical application of servant leadership provides food for thought for any board interested in making real, meaningful change. For more info and insights on board governance and technology, visit the Directorpoint blog. To learn what Directorpoint is doing to help organizations make better decisions across the board, schedule a demo of our easy-to-use board management software today. You can also contact us online or call (888) 492-7020 to speak to a board technology specialist.

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