Lack of Empathy Drives Destructive Leadership Behavior – Uber CEO Admits He Must Change

[Note: This article was originally published 3/8/2017 in the Huffington Post]

“Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit,” said Travis Kalanick (CEO of Uber). The CEO blew up while talking to his Uber driver at the end of his ride, after driver Fawzi Kamel blamed Kalanick for his recent bankruptcy. The incident was captured on video and published in an article on the Huffington Post.

Unfortunately, this example of a leader lacking emotional competence is all too common. According to Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves), most CEOs and other senior executives on average have the lowest EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient) score in the workplace. A leader lacking emotional competence can cause enormous damage to an organization in the form of diminished employee morale, and lost client loyalty and shareholder confidence. In this case it was Kamel, whose morale and loyalty were crushed, who sent the video of the embarrassing incident to the news media.

This begs the question, what emotional competencies must a leader have?

I would like to offer a list of 7 core leadership competencies and their related emotional drivers (see diagram below), which I have identified based on more than four decades of my own leadership experience, as well as through my work as a leadership coach. It was also drawn from the research and writings of experts in the field of positive psychology and modern management, including: Abraham Maslow, Victor Frankl, Peter Drucker, Stephen Covey, Daniel Goleman, Richard Barrett and others.

Boomerang Leadership Framework

The blue side of the pyramid represents seven critical leadership competencies, and the orange side represents the emotions that are the driving forces for each of these competencies:

  1. Caring About People’s Needs: Starting from the base of the pyramid, we see that the emotional competence of “Empathy” allows a leader to care about People’s needs.
  2. Serving People: Having “Compassion” inspires a leader to serve people.
  3. Understanding Issues: Being interested or curious motivates a leader to understand issues fully.
  4. Creating Vision: Fueled by empathy and deeper understanding, optimism allows a leader to create a truly inspirational vision for the future.
  5. Mobilizing People: An effective leader must inspire to mobilize people.
  6. Coordinating Action: Trust is essential for coordinating effective actions to realize the vision.
  7. Being Resilient: To overcome roadblocks and resistance to change, a leader must be resilient. Resilience requires a leader to stay positive in the face of obstacles.

Which emotion(s) would have made the biggest difference in the Uber incident?

All seven emotional competencies are critical and interrelated. As you can see, empathy is at the very foundation of the Boomerang Leadership Framework, and the rest of the pyramid builds on this fundamental emotional competence. This becomes especially clear in the case of the Uber CEO. Kalanick’s lack of empathy in this specific incident may have been a critical factor. If Travis Kalanick had been able to put himself into Fawzi Kamel’s shoes, it may have allowed Kalanick to care for and better understand Kamel’s needs. Then, the conversation would have taken a different turn, giving Kalanick the opportunity to listen, ask questions, and understand. As a result, the conversation may have improved Kamel’s morale and he would not have retaliated and caused damage to the company image. Kamel may even have become a powerful advocate of the CEO and his company. In Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee emphasize that “of all the E.I. (Emotional Intelligence) competencies… empathy matters most to visionary leadership.” That means, the ability to sense how others feel and to understand their perspectives enables a leader to articulate a truly inspirational vision.

How powerful can empathy really be?

To our astonishment, Kalanick treated his driver like an adversary or almost like an enemy. Unfortunately this happens far too often, both in business and even in personal life, when empathy is lacking. On the other hand, empathy can change behavior in a very powerful way, as can be seen in the following example from WWI. Two enemy soldiers between the trenches, one French and one German, approached each other with their bayonets mounted. Each was ready to kill the other until they came so close that they could look into each other’s eyes. As they suddenly recognized each other as human beings, they dropped their bayonets. This behavior of a voluntary truce happened consistently and at a large scale on the Western Front during WWI. It is called the “Live and Let Live System” in Tony Ashworth’s book, “Trench Warfare, 1914-1918.” Ashworth writes, “The process of mutual empathy among antagonists was facilitated by their proximity in trench war….Moreover, by getting to know the ‘neighbor’ in the trench opposite , each adversary realized that the other endured the same stress, reacted in the same way, and thus was not very different from himself.” Sadly, when the generals found out that thousands and thousands of their soldiers had stopped fighting, they made them start killing each other again.

How can a person learn to become more empathetic?

In my past role as a leader of global business teams, I sometimes found myself in a situation where a team member from one country would be frustrated, feeling resentment or even anger, towards a team member in another country. In that emotionally-charged situation, the other far away team member was almost seen as “the enemy” or someone who could not be trusted. Recognizing the dehumanization that was occurring in those moments and the risk that it would spiral down if unattended, I decided to bring the team physically together on a regular basis. Joint activities, like hiking or cooking together, allowed team members to get to know each other as human beings and develop empathy for their colleagues. Back home from these events, I came to notice that the team members collaborated better. Their negativity had been replaced by positivity. The empathy developed and nurtured through these events created human connections that had an enduring effect. When a crisis arose, team members called each other, supported each other and demonstrated more resilience. As part of our transformation and innovation training programs at Blue Earth Network, we use this approach to coach leaders on how to be more empathetic.

What’s the lesson for leaders?

By sharing Kalanick’s incident, my intention is not to blame individuals who may have fallen into these kinds of regrettable situations, but to make leaders aware of the importance of emotional competence in leadership. To his credit, Kalanick seems to have learned from this incident . After the video was released, he wrote to his staff: “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.” Imagine that a more emotionally competent, and especially empathetic, Kalanick could replay this scenario. He would now be able to better understand Kamel’s needs for respect, dignity, and fairness, as well as be more aware of Kamel’s aspirations. Drawing on this understanding, Kalanick would be able to articulate a truly inspirational vision for all of Uber’s stakeholders (including the drivers,) to strengthen employee morale, and regain client loyalty and shareholder confidence.

To learn more about how to become a more empathetic leader, you may contact the author at