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We need leaders who dream big. But who understand that profit does not equate success, and values are a much greater predictor of sustainability than dividends.

Everybody loves a plucky, by-the-seat-of-your-pants success story.

From Sara Blakely, founder of Spanks, to Melanie Perkins of Canva, and Jack Ma of Alibaba, we revel in disruptive David-and-Goliath battles – and invariably find ourselves rooting for the maverick founders who are brave or foolish enough to reimagine their industries.

What these feel-good narratives often miss, however, is what happens when the disruptor becomes the disrupted.

And, more ominously, how quickly a start-up success story can degenerate into a corporate implosion when leaders fail to adapt, evolve or respond to the needs of their people.

In 2016, Travis Kalanick was at the height of his power and success as the founder and CEO of the ride-hailing start-up, Uber. The company had been newly valued at $68 billion, having expanded into more than 500 cities around the globe, and it was diversifying and expanding at pace.

But less than a year later, Kalanick was forced to resign in disgrace. Over just a few months, Uber was rocked by a series of allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination, intellectual property theft, regulatory evasion and, perhaps most damning, a toxic work culture for which Kalanick was held directly and personally responsible.

As investors and customers scrutinised the implosion, it quickly became clear that the admired entrepreneur who dared to reimagine urban transport had lost not only his moral compass, but his business instincts.

And, ironically, the very qualities which had fuelled Kalanick’s meteoric rise – his brash, unapologetic drive for growth and a win-at-any-cost mentality – had proved his undoing.

By the time Kalanick uttered this now-infamous mea culpa, it was too late.

He was exposed as fraudulently attempting to fill Board seats with allies.

He was shown to have ignored multiple cases of sexual harassment.

He was captured on video bullying and diminishing employees.

And he was accused of stealing trade secrets from Google’s self-driving car unit.

While Kalanick may have been able to recover from the self-inflicted wounds of regulatory and operational chaos, he proved powerless to address the toxic culture he had not only allowed, but played a massive role in creating.

By allowing sexism, bullying, discrimination and other toxic behaviours to flourish in his company, the man who had revolutionised the transportation industry undermined his own vision and strategy.

And became, despite his many entrepreneurial gifts, a pariah CEO.

Juxtaposed against Travis Kalanick’s zealous and unethical pursuit of profit stands another, very different maverick founder: Virgin’s charismatic rebel-turned-elder, Richard Branson.

Initially, Kalanick and Branson harnessed many of the same qualities in pursuit of their ambitions. Both men were willing to take risks, and to gamble big on a disruptive vision of the future. Both were innovators and disruptors, with little to no regard for the status quo. And both men were lauded for their charisma and larger-than-life personalities – which neither was shy to employ in the pursuit of impact and influence.

But here the comparison ends. Kalanick and Branson’s paths diverge dramatically in their leadership philosophies, how they treated their people, and the organisational cultures they shaped for, and with, their people.

Where the Uber founder was a growth and profit zealot, Branson’s success has been largely driven by this evolving philosophy of empowering people and giving them the freedom to innovate and make a positive contribution to their world.

He promoted a healthy work-life balance, and actively encouraged employees to prioritise their well-being. This, including generous vacation and downtime, and flexible working arrangements, long before it became fashionable to do so.

Branson famously eschewed formal Board meetings and hierarchical committees, encouraging employees instead to approach him directly with their ideas – no matter how wild or out-the-box.

And he actively sought to break down silos across his organisations. In one well-known example, he (politely) sidestepped the recommendations of his marketing team to hear directly from lower-level employees what they, as potential customers, wanted from a new brand he was launching.

In the process, Richard Branson created a culture of trust, respect, psychological safety and, almost unheard of at the time, a commitment to joyfulness and having fun at work.

The contrast between Travis Kalanick and Richard Branson couldn’t be more stark. And the leadership lessons more evident.

Some of the greatest organisations in the world have been built by mavericks. By visionaries and free thinkers. Men and women who dare to reimagine their landscapes, and who have the audacity to believe that they can bring that vision to fruition.

But as start-ups grow and scale, and leaders navigate new realities, they face a critical choice:

Adapt, evolve, and take their people with them, as Branson did.

Or double down on old, profit-uber-alles ways, and risk losing their people along the way, as Kalanick did.

Our world needs plucky, by-the-seat-of-your-pants success stories. Now more than ever.

We need leaders who dream big.

Founders by nature, and by instinct, who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo, and do so with fervour and conviction.

But we also need leaders who have the humility, empathy and wisdom to recognise when change is not only necessary, but inevitable. Who understand that profit does not equate success, and values are a much greater predictor of sustainability than dividends.

We need more not fewer mavericks. But we get to choose what that looks like.

Which maverick will you be?

A Travis Kalanick, or a Richard Branson?

© Natalie Maroun


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