leadership

New Uber boss says he’s “scared” in memo to staff: Does this show authentic leadership?

Dominic Powell /

After months of searching, troubled ride sharing giant Uber has finally found its new chief executive in ex-Expedia boss Dara Khosrowshahi.

The decision was confirmed this week by the Uber board, which issued a joint statement expressing its confidence that Khosrowshahi was “the best person to lead Uber into the future”. Former chief executive Travis Kalanick resigned as the company’s chief executive after a string of concerns, including allegations of sexual harassment in the Uber workforce.

Khosrowshahi had been Expedia’s chief executive since 2005, with 2017 his 12th year with the travel and bookings company. In a memo to staff, the outgoing boss told them how hard it would be for him to leave.

“This has been one of the toughest decisions of my life,” wrote Khosrowshahi in a memo to all Expedia staff, uncovered by Recode.

“I’ve had the privilege to run Expedia for 12+ years now, and most of you who have been on this journey with me know it has not been easy going.”

Expedia has made 15 acquisitions since 2000, including a $700 million bid for Australian travel agency Wotif. At the time, SME industry associations slammed the decision from the competition watchdog to not oppose the merger, calling it short-sighted.

“I have to tell you I am scared. I’ve been here at Expedia for so long that I’ve forgotten what life is like outside this place,” Khosrowshahi continued in his memo to staff.

“But the times of greatest learning for me have been when I’ve been through big changes, or taken on new roles — you have to move out of your comfort zone and develop muscles that you didn’t know you had.”

Memo shows leadership “realness”

Speaking to SmartCompany, leadership expert and business coach Pollyanna Lenkic said Khosrowshahi’s memo was the perfect example of “realness and authenticity” in leadership, something she believes is lacking in all industries, not just Silicon Valley tech companies.

“People look at world-class leaders they admire and they go ‘damn, they’ve got something I haven’t got’, and this memo shows that none of that’s true,” Lenkic says.

“[Khosrowshahi’s] going into the role nervous and he’s feeling all the same things any other person would feel. It sounds genuine, it doesn’t sound forced, and it has authenticity and realness.”

Taking the approach of directly addressing the fact he will be out of his comfort zone in his new role at Uber is a good approach, says Lenkic. The the alternative approach from gung-ho leaders coming in to “take the business to its next evolution” is often not received well by staff, she believes.

“It’s human and real, and it makes him approachable as a leader. Coming in and admitting he’s scared about the role will actually have a ripple effect, and Uber staff will react in a more positive way,” she says.

Finally, Lenkic says Khosrowshahi’s “jargon-free” message will continue to resonate with Expedia staff even after he’s gone, as she believes it gives permission to the staff to “consider their own growth”.

“It gives permission in the company culture to say that to continue growing, it might not be in the organisation you’re in right now,” she says.

“It tells staff they should think about ‘what’s right for me, and if I should move on’, while also honouring the place you’re leaving.”

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Dominic Powell

Dominic is the features and profiles editor at SmartCompany.

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