Recently I started receiving Time Magazine in the mail. Don't ask me why. I didn't order it...just showed up in my mailbox one day. I'll have to track that one down. Anyhow, I couldn't help but notice the cover and feature story of the most recent edition regarding all the chaos going on at Uber, the smart phone-enabled taxi cab alternative company based in San Francisco.
It was a fascinating read that covered the Uber's start, it's meteoric rise, and the recent setbacks it has faced over the past 12 months. This is a company that, because of the aggressiveness of its founder, Travis Kalanick, and its ability to recognize and capitalize on the timing of several market related opportunities, grew rapidly, becoming a global force operating in 570 cities around the world in just a little more than 8 years. As of June 2016, Uber was worth more than $67 billion, (that's right...Billion)! That's impressive.
But, the problem is (based on many of the details in the article), the leaders apparently didn't possess the character needed for them to keep pace with the company's growth. Several issues (sexual harassment issues, unethical business strategies that have resulted in pending law suits, a "game of thrones" political power culture, etc.) would indicate that while Kalanick and many others in the organization possessed a ton of talent, they lacked the supporting character vitally needed to build something lasting and sustainable. Most recently this has led to Kalanick's resignation as CEO.
What can we as leaders learn from this? As I reflected on the situation at Uber, it reminded me of story from history that contains a very powerful principle related to this. Do you remember the story of the Titanic?
The Titanic was considered "the unsinkable ship." There was no travel liner that compared to it at the beginning of the 20th century. It was unparalleled technologically. Apparently the the captain and his crew shared the belief that it was unsinkable as it began its maiden voyage in 1912.
As it was sailing across the Atlantic on the night of April 14, the crew received several messages from other ships in the area, warning them of impending danger. They had spotted several icebergs in the Titanic's path and were attempting to alert the Titanic's crew. All of the warnings, however, were ignored. Finally after receiving the sixth warning, the crew member from the Titanic who received the message shot back, "Shut up! I'm busy!" They kept right on going full steam ahead, ignoring the warnings.
When the crew finally saw the ice berg, they attempted to turn the ship at the last minute. They managed to avoid a head on collision, glancing off to the side. Initially they thought they had avoided disaster because they were only looking at the 10% of the iceberg that was above the water line. What they didn't see was the portion of the iceberg below the water line that ripped a gaping and fatal hole in the side of the ship under the water that doomed it to sink. Over 1,500 people lost their lives that night.
This is very instructive for us as leaders. Just like the iceberg, our talent (skills, personality, abilities, etc.) represents that 10% that everyone can see. So that's what we as leaders often focus on and put all of our energy into developing. Our character, however, represents the 90% of who we are when no one is looking. And it is the 90% that must be solid if we intend to become the kind of leaders who build something sustainable, something that builds trust and leaves a legacy for others to follow. If the 90% isn't solid, it will eventually sink us.
One of the laws of leadership that John Maxwell writes about in his New York Times best seller, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, is the Law of Solid Ground. The Law of Solid Ground states that "trust is the foundation of leadership." Without trust, leaders have no foundation from which to lead. And without character, leaders cannot build trust.
I wonder how many of us, much like the crew from the Titanic, might be ignoring warning signs from our own life telling us that there is danger ahead because of some areas of our character (areas that no one can see) that lack integrity. And how many of us are saying, "Shut up! I'm busy!"
I encourage you to take some time over the next few days to do some self-reflection. How would you evaluate your character on a scale of 1-10? Who are you when no one is looking? What warning signs have you potentially been ignoring? What mid-course corrections do you need to make?
Remember, it's what's below the water line that sinks the ship...