What If Abraham Lincoln Ran Uber?

Oct 13, 2017 1 Min Read


What the new ceo of Uber should do next…

It’s weathered sexual harassment allegations, accusations of strikebreaking, and a failed expansion to China. But with Travis Kalanick out as CEO, Uber faces a new challenge: a power vacuum.

It’s not only Kalanick’s chair that’s been vacant in the C-suite. The ride-hailing giant hasn’t had a CFO since 2015, and recently announced plans to hire a COO after years of doing without.

General counsel and SVP of Engineering round out the list of high-level vacancies. After years as one of the most sought-after employers in Silicon Valley, the company is facing a harsh reality: it’s hard to recruit qualified people to work there.

It would have been tempting for Uber’s board to fill the CEO position with someone more tractable than the aggressive Kalanick. Or to build out a management team that will march in lockstep with each other, presenting a united front during the company’s time of great need.

But that would be wrongheaded. Hiring Dara Khosrowshahi as their new CEO, I believe was the first step in recognising Uber needed diversity.

In filling the rest of the vacancies in Uber’s C-suite, the board should recognise that what an organisation in crisis needs isn’t less dissent, but more of it.

It needs what Pulitzer Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has called a “team of rivals.”

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A team of what?

In her 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Goodwin used this term to describe Lincoln’s unusual presidential Cabinet.

Instead of packing it with allies, Lincoln included his three main rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, alongside other men who disagreed with him on major issues of the day.

When asked why he made this choice, Lincoln replied,

We needed the strongest men of the party in the cabinet. These were the strongest men.

The resulting group was fractious, but listening carefully to their differing viewpoints helped Lincoln make some of the hardest decisions of the war.

Goodwin’s book has been widely influential, reportedly even influencing former US president Barack Obama’s picks for his own Cabinet.

But it stands to reason that another president would take inspiration from Lincoln.

How would a tech company like Uber benefit from a team of rivals in its C-suite?

Rivals build consensus

Like the US at the dawn of the Civil War, Uber is at a turning point. It faces a major lawsuit for allegedly stealing secrets from Waymo, the self-driving car maker owned by Google’s parent company.

Its “Uber Everything” initiative, which aims to move things instead of people, is rumored to be driving big domestic losses.


Plus, there’s all that sexism to deal with—even the board is not immune.

Lincoln’s cabinet included every faction in the Republican Party’s fragile coalition, from radical abolitionists to former slaveholders to former members of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party.

You’d think such a group would crack under the intense pressure of the war, but ultimately, these differences created unity.

Lincoln promoted openness and creativity—the opposite of a dictatorial strongman. Though each faction might disagree with Lincoln’s ultimate decision, they at felt heard.

Uber could learn a lot. The obvious place to start: drivers.

In February, a Facebook Q&A with then-president of Ridesharing Jeff Jones went awry when drivers piled on hundreds of complaints.

A few weeks after Kalanick’s ouster, Uber finally enabled in-app tipping—something drivers had been asking for six years.

Following the team of rivals model, Uber should find a way to give drivers a greater voice in discussions—maybe by including HR chief Liane Hornsey in more board-level meetings.

Brought on last year to remake Uber’s culture, she has been frank about the complaints she’s been hearing from workers, especially about compensation.

A CHRO who can bring workers’ feedback to the C-suite will be invaluable to the company in the long-term.

This might interest you: Are C-Level Leaders Competent Enough For The Future?

Rivals make better decisions

Who else should make up the team of C-Suites? An executive from the auto industry would have an invaluable perspective on Uber’s future.

So would a manufacturing executive or labour leader who has overseen the transition to automation in factories—an issue that will be increasingly critical.

The ideal “team of rivals” would also be more diverse in terms of gender and race.

More diverse groups hash out issues more thoroughly before making a decision: one 2006 study found that compared to all-white juries, racially diverse juries exchange more information, make fewer factual errors, and discuss more factors that might be relevant to the case.

It goes without saying that Uber’s public image will be helped by adding some women and people of colour to the C-suite, too.

Appointing Dara Khosrowshahi and adding Nestlé’s exec Wan Ling Martello to the board was a good first step, but to make a real impact, the trend towards diversity needs to accelerate.

The hardest part: Finding Lincoln

Ultimately, a team of rivals is only as strong as the political skills of its leader. Lincoln was able to get tremendous work out of his Cabinet because its individual members came to trust him, even if they did not always trust or agree with each other.  

Leaders willing to both listen sensitively and make hard decisions are tough to come by. But at this critical point in its life cycle, that’s exactly what Uber needs.

Not a strongman like Kalanick or even a Steve Jobs-esque visionary, but a Lincoln-like leader who can contend seriously with conflicting viewpoints without losing sight of the way forward—as long as they have a team of rivals to help them. Can Khosrowshahi be to Uber what Lincoln was to the USA?

Haresh Khoobchandani will be speaking at the AmBank BizCONFERENCE in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 1. To sign up for free and be inspired by his take on transformation in the digital age, visit ambankbizclub.com

Haresh brings more than 25 years experience of working in Asia, leading and transforming organisations & teams to thrive in the Digital Age. A writer, public speaker and passionate advocate on technology as a transformation enabler, Haresh is a certified coach, and coaches senior executives in the areas of leadership, diversity and driving transformation in the digital age. Haresh is also CEO at REA Group Singapore & Malaysia. Share your thoughts with him at editor@leaderonomics.com


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This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 

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