Why Character Matters -- And Costs -- In Business

Martin Romjue
Posted on April 5, 2017

(Wikimedia Commons image by Ethics Unwrapped)

(Wikimedia Commons image by Ethics Unwrapped)

LAS VEGAS — You could not have unwrapped a better publicity gift to the limousine industry than the infamous video of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick losing his temper with a driver who criticized his business model. It just said and confirmed so much.

Had this been a one-off incident, most of us would chalk it up to a bad moment, bad night, or a bad mood; we’ve all been there. With Kalanick, however, it was the raw impromptu episode that underscored a public pattern of arrogant, defiant behavior and flouting of norms and rules. It’s one thing to be a swashbuckler if you’re a grown-up who’s earned a record of creating good works. It’s another if your company supplies an inexcusable serial drama of safety and crime-related incidents, threats, and harassment. Were it not for the convenience Uber offers and the political and public relations warriors it pays for, Uber would have joined the dung pile of corporate disgrace a long time ago. It may still yet.

Here again we have another Exhibit A of inconsistent values, or ethics, in a successful, self-made entrepreneur or business figure. Public and private don’t quite match up. We’ve seen one leader after another fall into this trap.

How appropriate then that the keynote speaker for the International LCT Show, former pro-football player-turned-coach-turned ESPN commentator Herm Edwards, spoke on this very topic March 13. “What you do in the dark comes to light. When faced with conflicting thoughts and desires, never compromise your integrity. It’s not an option.”

No matter what changes or obstacles emerge, you always stay true to your values and principles, Edwards said. Even when facing lonely decisions; even if it costs you money and attention in the short term. Colleagues, teammates, and subordinates are watching.

That applies to all businesses and vocations, at all times, including the chauffeured transportation industry.

The keynote theme segued well into a Q&A stage interview the next day with Steven Hill, author of “Raw Deal: How The Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers.” Hill contends Uber and gig-economy companies are shredding the labor- and income-stability of America’s full-time employment economy. A freelance gig labor market where more workers juggle for-hire jobs does not produce a confident economy where consumers save, invest, and spend. They just work to survive. That, in turn, diminishes everything down the economic line and splinters the social fabric.

How does Uber get away with this? Because it misleadingly calls itself a “technology company” and avoids rules that apply to similar businesses and industries, which have to spend more money to comply and are undercut. Why does Uber do this? Because it can, and because it lacks defined principles and values applied and trained across the board. Where does that come from? Cue the Kalanick video.

What’s needed here is what I call the “get-real reset,” to borrow some common slang. Sometimes you don’t have to look far to find it.

In the video, I must admit I was just as fascinated with the moments before the little meltdown. Most of the backseat cam footage shows a 40-year-old CEO shimmying and flirting between two females like an insecure, scamming college guy. Based on the conversation, they did not seem to know him very well. It’s easy to scoff at and ridicule his behavior, but as a former single adult, I can relate somewhat.

Had the video just shown a youngish CEO acting socially awkward, Kalanick may have earned himself some goodwill. People naturally relate to those human moments. Better yet, had he simply handed his card to the driver, thanked him for his honesty, and told him he wanted to talk further, it could have been a pleasant surprise, maybe even the start of a new persona. But that would take some maturity and growing up.

The more time I spend with businesspeople — interviewing, visiting, networking, and then writing about it all — the more I see how character counts for more than talent, wealth, skill, and ambition combined.

Takeaway lesson: If you clean up your act in private, you don’t have to worry about the public, no matter your station in life. When you abide by proven values that endure, it’s easier to be genuine, whether someone is looking or not. And it affects more people than you’ll ever know.

Related Topics: business ethics, How To, ILCT 2017, keynote speakers, LCT editor, Martin Romjue, TNCs, Travis Kalanick, Uber

Martin Romjue Editor
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