By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc. January 25, 2017
Hang around the tech industry long enough and you become well-versed in occasionally ludicrous business behavior. That was true before, during and after the dot.com boom/bust, the housing boom/bust and current market palpitations related to various social, mobile, cloud, IoT and big data start-ups.
Many start-up companies hammer two central points to prove their uniqueness: 1) This time it’s different (i.e. conventional rules no longer apply), and 2) Trust us (i.e. we know what we’re doing better than you do).
Neither view is unique or typically correct. When things go south, as they often do, the results can be severe. Classic cases, like pets.com and, more recently, Yahoo, get the biggest headlines, but thousands of less noticeable companies flared briefly, flamed out and left their investors’ holdings in ashes.
Even relatively successful organizations, both in the private and public sphere, can cause damage unless they aren’t held to reasonable standards. Let’s consider that.
In the newer class of silicon start-ups, Uber is currently following or at least attempting to follow this behavioral mode. Its philosophical refusal to recognize drivers as employees is the company’s highest profile and most controversial position since it’s central to Uber’s claim to be a technology rather than a transportation company.
That view also makes good business sense since it allows Uber to ignore and avoid paying for the worker background checks, employment benefits and liability insurance that traditional taxi companies must bear. In fact, it is highly unlikely that Uber could effectively compete or even survive if it were held to the same standards as the competitors it is working to displace.
That said, Uber’s strategy doesn’t play well everywhere, including prime U.S. markets like Seattle, Chicago, Portland and San Antonio, and overseas in Europe and Asia where the company has been told to act like a transportation company or leave. In such cases, Uber packs up its toys and heads for the door, then typically attempts a circuitous route back by currying political influence. That approach has worked some places though not everywhere.
Other Uber activities have resulted in the company hitting the regulatory equivalent of a brick wall. In December, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) found that Uber was ignoring explicit safety rules by testing self-driving cars on San Francisco city streets without the required permits. The company vocally insisted that it was exempt from state regulations, attempting to bully the agency into retreat.
In response, the DMV politely disagreed, noted that twenty other auto and transportation companies were happily complying with its rules, revoked the registrations for Uber’s vehicles and said the company was welcome to reapply for the program whenever it liked. Uber’s autonomous cars were last seen ignominiously strapped to big rig auto carriers, heading for apparently friendlier climes in Arizona.
What does this have to do with the “politics” noted in this commentary’s title? Just this—while healthy self-confidence plays a role in nearly every success story, there is a thin line between overt and over-confidence and an even narrower border between self-belief and sociopathy.
Uber’s avoidance of industry conventions and common practices betrays a notable level of arrogance concerning the well-being of its customers and drivers. Ignoring or attempting to revise rules and regulations merely to benefit itself suggest the company is edging toward that finer sociopathic line.
That, in itself, is troubling but even more so is that rather than being an outlier, Uber appears to define a new behavioral norm for some professionals in the business and political arenas. That includes leaders and advisors in one of the most divisive political campaigns in modern times, one marred regularly by fallacious “fake” news stories and media outlets that were too timid or restrained to call them out.
As a result, the U.S. is now led by a self-absorbed media figure whose public statements are consumed by revisionary fibs, whole untruths, denials of accepted convention, attempts to bend or break established rules for his own benefit and angry responses to criticism of any sort.
In other words, President Donald Trump is the Uber of politics.
The first few days of the new administration have been fraught, including memorable performances by new press secretary Sean Spicer and top advisor Kellyanne Conway that inspired vociferous pushback from the media. In fact, Conway’s claim that “alternative facts” proved the administration’s dubious claims about the number of attendees at Trump’s inauguration, quickly established an impressive new low in political rhetoric.
Whether or how the new President can be contained is an open question. Theodore Roosevelt famously called the U.S. presidency a “bully pulpit.” However, in Roosevelt’s usage, “bully” was a friendly expression of enthusiasm that today might be replaced by “great” or “awesome.”
What might happen if the Oval Office were occupied by a literal and literal-minded bully is unlikely to have crossed the mind of a cheerful and responsible warrior like Roosevelt. As noted in an editorial he wrote in 1918, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
But that, as they say, was then. Today, “Uberization” defines a new form and level of competition unrestrained by tradition, convention or even the truth in both business and politics.
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