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Uber Reveals the Perils of Grit Gone Wild

Set bold goals. Drive for results. Accelerate growth. Foster competition. Push people to excel.

This is the ‘grit’ side of business success, and it’s become a favored playbook in the start-up world. This formula has produced dizzying growth and investor bonanzas for countless new companies. So what’s not to love about a strategy like this? Ask Uber’s investors and its CEO, Travis Kalanick.

Under Kalanick’s leadership, Uber’s strategy and corporate culture were overwhelmingly grit-centric:  which is to say that Uber has faltered – seriously and predictably – because of the absence of the grace aspect of the enterprise. What was missing in Kalanick’s Uber? Fairness; compassion; care for employees’ welfare; collaboration. You know – that touchy-feely stuff that, in the right amount, actually makes organizations sing.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with bodacious goals and an aggressive stance to productivity. But, if left to its own devices, grit’s aggressive ambition will ultimately bring a company down. Like a tall tree with shallow roots, like a field farmed year after year, like an engine run too hot for too long, a leader who leans on the grit and ignores the grace has followed a recipe for failure.

According to a recent New York Times article, Uber’s obsession with results at all costs – unmediated by attention to workplace equality, safety, civility and due process – has fostered some very unhealthy dynamics:

  • a hyper-competitive atmosphere which pits employees against each other and against management
  • inappropriate workplace conduct among high-performers has gone unchecked, condoned and even modeled from the top
  • incidents of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination have continued to mount

As a result, Uber’s “bro” culture became a broken culture. Customers, employees and investors are in revolt and the company is in chaos.

  • The company’s brand and profits have taken a huge hit; Kalanick’s been forced to step aside.
  • Uber’s valuation has dropped from $68B to $50B, while its customers flock to competitor, Lyft.
  • Uber is mired in lawsuits brought by employees and competitors.
  • The company will need to devote untold resources and time to rehabilitate its culture, management practices and brand.

Our experience tell us, and research confirms, that the leaders who are effective over the long term are the ones who blend grit and grace. Maybe not in perfect halves, but at least in dynamic combination. Their actions promote productivity as well as harmony, and foster competition and collaboration in healthy measure. Why? Because the blend is what gets the best results over time.

The Uber story, like the 2009 real estate crisis and Enron before that, was predictable and avoidable, because grit alone (like grace alone) can’t deliver sustainable success. So if you’re a grit-leaning leader who wants to shoot the moon without the crash-and-burn, go get your grace on.

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Grit and Grace…On Behalf of What?

I usually steer away from philosophy in this blog, focusing more on practical leadership topics. But from time to time, I think it’s important to step back from the ‘how to’ of leading with grit & grace and look more deeply at the ‘why.’  On behalf of what does this work exist?

The underlying purpose of Leading With Grit & Grace™ is to help individuals and institutions address what I call the ‘tyranny of success.’ On one hand, it is critically important to establish what we’re good at. This forms the very foundation of our effectiveness. For example, a leader discovers that she gets great results by being understanding with her people, so she adopts a compassionate leadership style. A company sees a spike in profits by downsizing, and develops a core ethos of ‘doing more with less.’ In other words: we take an action; we like the result. So we “rinse and repeat” a few times, and pretty soon, we’ve got a bona fide formula for success.  Great, right?

Not necessarily. We humans tend to fall truly, madly and deeply in love with what works for us, and this can become a problem. Over time, we may stop paying attention to whatever falls outside our loving gaze, and our attentions and actions become imbalanced without our knowing it. Seemingly out of nowhere, our once-reliable strategy for success starts to wreak havoc: not because it’s the wrong strategy, but because it’s built on a partial set of values that we believe to be complete. Sure, it’s great to be good to your people.  But at some point, too much kindness will tank your efficacy.  It’s great to maximize efficiency. But continually stressing your people and resources will ultimately exact a heavy price.

The tyranny of success occurs when we lean on one set of values (and their resulting behaviors) and neglect their necessary opposites: kindness to the neglect of firmness; profits to the neglect of sustainability; ambition to the neglect of service; growth to the neglect of recovery and stabilization.  It is in the forgetting of these necessary opposites that our strengths become liabilities and can begin to do real harm.  It is from this forgetting that burn-out, abuse, complacency, greed, exploitation, and demoralization arise.

So regardless of the scale or context in which we are working, the work we do at Leading With Grit & Grace™ is always about helping people and institutions to transcend the tyranny of their success, and to develop a more balanced and sustainable form of thought, action and impact. It is on behalf of this intention that we exist.

What about you?

What are your (or your institution’s) formulas for success?

What values are at the core of your formula?

What do those values make possible for you and others?

What are the positive opposites of those values?  Which of these positive opposites might you be overlooking or undervaluing?

How might you integrate some of those neglected values more fully to support your success?

Selfishness or Self-sacrifice: Is That Our Only Choice?

“Even though my efforts helped that project succeed, I’m not comfortable tooting my own horn.”
“It’s really hard for me to leave the office on time when I know my staff is still there slaving away.”
“I just can’t seem to take a day out for myself.”

Women leaders say that kind of stuff to me all the time. And when I ask them why these actions are so difficult, their answer is usually some version of “Because I don’t want to be (or appear) selfish.”

Navigating the whole selfish/selfless thing is hard for grit and grace leaders alike. For you gracesters, much of your value system is tied up with supporting others. Thus, many of you would sooner give away the store than put yourself first.

But it’s no picnic for you grit leaders either – just for different reasons. Even those of you who are comfortable advocating for yourself may hold back, out of fear of being branded as bitchy or aggressive.

If you are a woman in a position of power, then you know that the pressure to be seen as ANYTHING but selfish can be pretty intense. As a result, it may seem easier to err on the side of selflessness, because it seems like the less risky of the two options.

But actually, there are tremendous risks in that choice as well. Your views go unheard; your accomplishments stay hidden; your visibility diminishes. You may burn out because you don’t say no. Your influence and impact may wane. And that’s not just a loss for you, it’s a loss for all of us.

So is this really your only choice: selflessness or selfishness, martyrdom or bitchiness? Nope.

There’s a third option, which I call self-fullness. Self-fullness originates from that quiet but unshakable sense of yourself… a sense of your own validity (if not perfection) and a connection to the values you hold most sacred. No one can give those to you and no one can take them away. So they are the seat and source of your truest power. From a full self, you can stand from your own dignity without pushing others’ to the side. You can lean in without running over.

Self-fullness originates from that quiet but unshakable sense of yourself… a sense of your own validity (if not perfection) and a connection to the values you hold most sacred.

Self-fullness is the ability to take action from one’s core.  It’s knowing our minds, our hearts, our values and our bodies.  It’s knowing what matters and what doesn’t, what we’re capable of doing well and not, and what our team is capable of doing well…and not.  Self-fullness is a realistic and full self-understanding, and that is the root of skillful action.

So what does that actually look like? Actually, self-fullness is not revealed by the action itself, but by the intent and spirit with which it’s carried out.

Here’s an example. I had a boss, Danielle, who took a walk at lunch every single day. Without fail. If Danielle had been rooted in selfishness, her walk would have communicated, “Screw you guys. I need ‘me’ time,” and we probably wouldn’t have appreciated it. If she were rooted in selflessness, she’d probably have given it up at our first urging. While we might have liked her for that, chances are we would have respected her a bit less.

But we could just tell that Danielle’s walk was self-fully motivated. A mid-day walk always returned her to ‘center:’ it restored her energy, perspective and sense of balance. Without her ever having to say so, we knew that that time to herself benefitted us as much as it did her. We respected and appreciated her for it.

The same action – taken from three different relationships to self. Each sending a very different leadership message and having a very different impact.

Danielle’s self-fullness had impacts far beyond herself.  She was known as a formidable and trustworthy negotiator in any setting. She did not abandon her point of view when it made someone else uncomfortable. But neither did she go on the attack. Because she was clear about her values and principles,  she knew where to stand and where to flex. She was nobody’s doormat and nobody’s witch.

Danielle also cultivated self-fullness in her staff. Danielle pulled me into her office. She sat me down and said, “Leslie, I’m concerned about your performance. I don’t see you staring into space enough. If you’re not staring into space, you’re not being as creative as we need you to be. So please stop doing so much, and stare out the window more.”

What about you?

Where do you tend to lean – toward self-sacrifice or selfishness?

What do you gain and lose from that default stance?

Think of a time when you felt really “self-full”.  What was different about your internal experience, your outward actions and the external result?

What made your self-fullness possible? Where were you rooted? What was important?

How can you cultivate greater self-fullness in your life and your leadership?

 

 

It’s (still) Not Easy Being ‘Grit’

Earlier this year, my partner and I interviewed 28 women leaders about their styles of influence and how those styles work – or don’t – in organizational life. (You can request a copy of our findings in the right hand column.) One of the primary questions we wanted to answer was whether organizations relate differently to women leaders, based on their ‘grit’ or ‘grace’ style.

Our finding? Do they ever.

50% of our sample identified their influence style as predominantly ‘grace’-based, while 50% identified their stylistic preference as predominantly ‘grit’-based. Two of the questions we asked were:

“Have you ever received feedback that your style was either ‘too hard’ or ‘too soft?’ and
“If so, how was that actually communicated to you?”

We found that grit-based leaders catch a lot more flak for their style than their grace-based counterparts – even though both styles, when out of balance, can create equal amounts of organizational havoc.

Collectively, the grace-based leaders we interviewed mentioned only 3 criticisms that had been levied against them:

  • too nice
  • too slow
  • too inclusive

This feedback is probably too vague to be helpful. But while it’s not very effective input, at least it’s not cruel.

On the other hand, the same number of ‘grit’ interviewees reported 21 different criticisms. Not only were the criticisms more plentiful, but the language used was also far more specific and emotionally laden:

  • impatient
  • demonstrating a lack of respect
  • not being giving enough
  • not asking for help
  • not caring
  • working people to death
  • defensive
  • rigid
  • not inclusive enough
  • set expectations that were too high
  • high maintenance
  • too hard
  • too serious
  • too frank and direct
  • bitch
  • pushy and insensitive
  • too detail oriented
  • need to ‘step back’
  • need to get my priorities straight
  • angry black woman
  • arrogant

Um, wow.

The strength of this language may, in part, reflect the intense impact that a grit-gone-growl leader can have to his or her environment. Yet, we also know that many organizations continue to be ‘allergic’ to assertive behavior in women, the same behavior generally applauded in men. What shocked us, though, was the harsh and harmful way in which this organizational allergy gets expressed. We think this list is a wake-up call for all managers to give more objective, balanced and helpful feedback to grit-based women.

In the meantime, if you’re a woman with a fast-paced, assertive style, you know this: it’s (still) not easy being grit.

What about you?

If you are a grit-based leader, have you experienced this kind of feedback?

What do you make of it?

What impact do those kinds of messages have…

…on how you feel about yourself?
…on how you feel about leading in your organization?
…on how you navigate decisions”
…on how/when to express your strength?
What advice do you have for other grit-based leaders who receive feedback like this?

And if you MANAGE a woman with a grit-based style… How do you give stylistic feedback that’s accurate, objective and useful? How do you keep feedback freer of your own biases, discomforts and assumptions?