When Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was forced out on June 20, it was reasonable to assume the ride-share service’s employees would breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of more stable and professional management.
Many probably did. But there’s a sizable body of Uber’s 12,000 workers protesting Kalanick’s ouster and calling for his return. At least 1,100 signed an e-petition praising his vision and work ethic, saying “we would not be here today without him, and believe he can evolve into the leader we need.”
It’s not unusual for leaders—even ones who seem as flawed as Kalanick—to inspire fierce loyalty. In business, sports, and politics, there’s a long history of followers defending figures whose actions, from the outside, seem indefensible, from the diehard supporters of former US president Richard Nixon to fans of cyclist Lance Armstrong to devotees of Apple’s Steve Jobs.
Uber employees have rallied around Kalanick in part because workers crave authenticity and dedication in their leaders. Kalanick’s sophomoric behavior, which looked abhorrent from outside, no doubt helped endear him to some employees. And his long work hours helped prove his commitment to the company.
Charismatic bosses can blur the lines between themselves and their organization. That’s particularly true at startups, where founders like Kalanick are deeply invested in the company’s success. Their fortunes become indistinguishable from those of their enterprise, and their employees, whose livelihoods are tied to the company, place their hopes in the hands of the founder.
“I don’t think people can comprehend the complexity of what it is to be the CEO of Uber, and how Travis is an inherent part of this company, by inspiring all of us daily to hustle and make things happen,” wrote Frederique Dame, a former Uber manager, on Facebook.
Powerful leaders use drama and narrative to rally their followers around their cause, even one as seemingly trivial as providing cheaper taxi service. Jobs was a master of this, using stage craft and imagery at Apple events to convince his employees and customers their goals were larger and more important than simply selling new computers.
Kalanick’s vision drove his employees to unusual lengths, Margaret-Ann Seger, another “heartbroken” Uber employee, wrote on Facebook. “Thank you for creating a place so passionate about bringing affordable, reliable transportation to the whole world,” she wrote.
There’s another, less noble reason for the Uber employees’ devotion to Kalanick: He’s making them very rich. Uber is valued at as much as $70 billion, and when, or if, the company goes public, employees who received equity will be in line to cash in. That should engender some loyalty.