‘Uber Files’ a warning of toxic leadership’s permanent taint

In 2022, Uber has had a difficult time putting its history behind it due to a televised drama and a damaging data breach.

In contrast to the Showtime series, which focused on the rise and fall of former CEO Travis Kalanick, this week's "Uber Files" exposé focuses only on the company's low points. Internal messages obtained by The Guardian in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) contain allusions to Uber breaching the law, influencing world leaders, and even using violence in the 2010s to promote its expansion.

"Embrace the chaos," according to a communication attributed to a senior official, seemed to sum up the company's ethos at the time.

Uber's rocky history is well-known, but the breadth of the alleged unethical behaviour within the company's walls continues to dominate headlines and serves as a reminder of the inevitable shadow of toxic leadership.

Though Kalanick resigned as CEO of Uber in 2017 and exited its board in 2019, the company is still answering for his actions today. “We have not and will not make excuses for past behavior that is clearly not in line with our present values,” Uber said in a statement responding to the ICIJ’s investigation. “Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come.”

Uber said that 90 percent of the company's existing workers had joined after Dara Khosrowshahi became CEO. Khosrowshahi “rewrote the company’s values, revamped the leadership team, made safety a top company priority, implemented best-in-class corporate governance, hired an independent board chair, and installed the rigorous controls and compliance necessary to operate as a public company,” Uber added.

However, many customers may still be suspicious about Uber. The ICIJ's research has shown manipulation of laws, political leaders, and personnel. In the report, one executive brags about being "pirates" while discussing strategies to dodge regulatory compliance, and the alleged use of a "kill switch" to prevent authorities from collecting evidence during office raids is also detailed.

Perhaps Kalanick is the most notable figure in the results. A representative for him adamantly refuted the allegation that he claimed "violence guarantees victory" while considering deploying Uber drivers into potentially deadly protests staged by taxi drivers across Europe.

However, Kalanick is no stranger to controversy, most notably in the months preceding his resignation as CEO when charges of gender discrimination and sexual harassment at the business surfaced. Even after resigning as CEO, the Uber co-founder remained unwilling to relinquish his power as a board member over the company's operations until he resigned in 2019, selling billions of dollars' worth of Uber shares.

Three years later, Kalanick's actions continue to leave a taint. This was intentional; Kalanick was Uber. Like Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Steve Jobs at Apple before him, he attempted to transform the corporation to conform to his business philosophy.

Despite the fact that Uber may not exist without his accomplishments, his flaws will plague the firm for years to come. At this point, it may have survived the worst from regulators, but public perception will continue to be a concern. Such is the cost when a company's greatest weakness is its leadership.

“I regret being part of a group of people which massaged the facts to earn the trust of drivers, of consumers, and of political elites,” Mark MacGunn, Uber’s former chief lobbyist for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, told The Guardian in coming forward as the whistleblower behind the “Uber Files” report. “I should have shown more common sense and pushed harder to stop the craziness.”

Uber's hindsight is twenty-twenty. Its narrative serves as a lesson for other firms on the lasting effects of immoral leadership.