We have not been used to leaders candidly admitting that they must "grow up" and that they are in need of "leadership help."
Yet, to his credit, Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, following a videotaped incident in which he shouted angrily and swore at one of the company's driver, did exactly this. His misbehavior is a useful reminder that simply being a successful entrepreneur, or the top gun in an organization, does not mean that you are necessarily fit to lead.
Mr. Kalanick lets us know why: leadership is about leading others, meaning, among other things, behaving in a way that makes the community one leads "proud."
A leader is the chief educator. Everything he says is watched: his language and the manner of his communication sends messages to followers, whether he likes it or not. People look up to the leader for inspiration and exemplary behaviors just as children look up to their parents.
Does it mean that leaders cannot make mistakes? Well, in a 24/7 society, the latitude for mistakes is small. Once caught misbehaving, you have no choice but to apologize if you want to maintain your credibility and, through it, the trust of internal and external stakeholders.
An apology, especially one that feels authentic, like Mr. Kalanick's, is cathartic – humility pays off. A new start is made possible. By exposing his vulnerability, Mr. Kalanick paradoxically strengthens himself: people are more likely to trust someone who admits mistakes and is committed to improve his leadership style. When a weakness is admitted, half the problem has been addressed.
But it is not just a matter of moral calculus: by apologizing, a leader indicates what matters to him; what sort of person he wants to be; and, by extension, what sort of organization he wants to shape. This is about building identity, not just moral calculus.
Does Mr. Kalanick's misbehavior reflect Uber's broader culture? One does not know, but it does look that way, especially in light of recent allegations of "systemic" sexism and an H.R. department that, allegedly, does not look into employee complaints seriously.
We have not seen at Uber strong evidence of a culture of self-restraint, employee development, and high trust. The phenomenon is not new. Companies aggressive in the marketplace are likely to push "soft" issues to the sidelines as they become obsessive with margins and market shares.'
It takes a self-restraining leadership, wise enough to be aware of such tendencies, to hold back the company's aggressive urges, so they do not spread to the internal environment of the organization.
Leaders must have the maturity to see that, by focusing intensely on commercial objectives, they are likely to disregard other important issues.
When their own behavior becomes problematic in a publicly visible way, it is a realization not just that they need to "grow up," but that the whole organization needs to shift to a more sophisticated level.
This is why, ultimately, Mr. Kalanick's overwhelming admission of guilt should be seen positively: by being prepared to work on himself, he is making an indirect commitment to work for the development of the culture of his company: to help make it more humane, more team-oriented, and more trusting.
An apology for his misbehavior can be a powerful symbol for a corporate apology – and the opportunity to address seriously the company's weaknesses. Mistakes are cathartic, provided leaders actively acknowledge them.