Uber and the Übermensch

The Confusion of Arrogance and Conviction in Leadership

By really hearing, helping and honoring others, leaders can keep their convictions from leading to a destructive culture.

Topics: Pride | Leadership

Uber, the ride hailing company based in San Francisco, has changed the way we think about transportation and upset an entire industry. The company has big plans for the future, too, looking to take transportation to the next level with technology that makes a Tesla look like a Conestoga wagon. All its accomplishments, however, have been overshadowed in the past few months by major scandal and corporate shakeup. Sparked by former employee Susan Fowler’s blog post regarding sexism and male dominance at the company, a full investigation revealed a top-down culture of egocentrism, “winners and losers” and an “always be hustlin’”corporate mentality. Missing among its leadership was the humility necessary to listen to the concerns of their drivers and other employees, who seemed to be pit against one another for recognition. As the investigation confirmed Ms. Fowler’s allegations, Uber began to see an exodus of top leaders, culminating with CEO Travis Kalanick’s decision to step down from leadership at the company he helped create. Uber’s leaders failed to hear, help and honor their people, displaying the classic confusion of conviction and arrogance among organizational leadership.

While it appears that Uber’s business model may be partially to blame, the problem goes way beyond a flawed mission and vision statement. The “uber-problem” with Uber is the culture it created. The definition of “human flourishing” implicit within the open offices of Uber is do whatever it takes to succeed. Every person for themselves. Be innovative or be eliminated. Such a culture bred an atmosphere of honor and shame. This is the sort of culture inherent in the übermensch—a personality type first suggested by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Often translated “Superman,” the übermensch represents one who stares at the apparent nothingness of life and creates for himself an entirely new moral structure and way of being. He or she is not beholden to traditional notions of religion, citizenship or commonly accepted morality, leaving only individual taste and desire.

In lots of ways, this is the underlying driving force of our world’s way of being. The culture of “meritocracy” at the center of Uber’s business rewards those who blaze their own path, despite any toes that get stepped on along the way. “It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job,” wrote Susan Fowler. The mentality of the übermensch reigned supreme at Uber, as it does in much of our culture.

When we get conviction right, humble leadership is soon to follow.

In his book, Humilitas, John Dickson writes about this type of culture. He states, “One of the failings of contemporary western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance.” It is possible to have conviction with humility, yet it’s so easy for conviction to grow into arrogance. You need not trample on others to demonstrate that you hold firm to a belief or direction and want to convince others of your position. You can think others are wrong or misguided and still work to honor them and portray a spirit of hospitality to their personalities and ideas. When we get conviction right, humble leadership is soon to follow.

When we lead with arrogance, we actually lead from a position of weakness. You see, authoritarianism is not leadership—it’s brokenness and insecurity. Arrogant leaders feel like they can never be wrong; therefore, they are unable to listen to alternative and dissenting opinions. Arrogant leaders feel like they need to be in control; therefore, they are unable to affirm and unleash team members to fulfill their potential. Arrogant leaders feel like the success of the organization is dependent on themselves and, perhaps, a select few who agree with them; therefore, they fail to create a team with diverse perspectives and abilities who unite around a common vision. Arrogant leaders are often incapable of leading from a place of security and health. An arrogant leader says, “My way is the best, and you best fall in line.”

A convicted, humble leader says, “Our vision is what’s best for the most people, and I need your help to get there.”

This is not a modern problem. The apostle Paul discussed the relationship between arrogance and conviction in his own life:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor. 12:7-9)

Paul, a man full of conviction, recognized that his weakness actually increased the witness and movement of the gospel. He recognized his temptation to be arrogant, and God provided his “thorn in the flesh” to keep him grounded and humble. As Paul models, our strength comes only when we recognize and find joy in our weakness.

In our positions of ministry and leadership, we need to prayerfully consider whether we are displaying conviction or arrogance.

In J.I. Packer’s book, Weakness Is the Way, he gives three imperatives from Paul’s ministry of weakness. First, “Look to Christ as your loving Sin-Bearer and living Lord.” The one who condescended to take on flesh and bear our sin demonstrates that conviction and humility go hand in hand (Phil. 2:1-11). Packer also states, “Love Christ, in unending gratitude for his unending love to you.” True gratitude will always breed humility. Every time. Last he states, “Lean to Christ and rely on him to supply through the Holy Spirit all the strength you need for his service, no matter how weak unhappy circumstances and unfriendly people may be making you feel at present.” The Holy Spirit is the Helper and Provider. He reminds you of Christ’s work on your behalf and helps you apply that work to all the facets of your life.

With this in mind, how can we understand the role of humility in leadership? I want to propose three simple points:

1. Humility hears. Humble leadership listens to the input of others and validates their contribution.
2. Humility helps. Humble leadership avoids exercising power over others and works for their good.
3. Humility honors. Humble leadership identifies other’s gifts and maximizes their potential.

When we recognize the difference between arrogance and conviction, we are able to see the toxic nature of arrogance among leadership structures. The übermensch mentality, where morals are self-defined and others are simply a means to an end, breeds arrogance to the core. The self-emptying mentality, based on Philippians 2:5-8, where Christ demonstrated the true character of humility and conviction, breeds like-minded humble leadership and others-centered conviction.  

Nietzsche proposed a paradigm for the übermensch who is able to bypass the common norms of morality to blaze their own trail, but Scripture presents a completely different paradigm for the “Superman.” Rather than leading from arrogance, this one leads from conviction. Instead of dismissing the traditional norms of authority, this one condescends to demonstrate a posture of humility birthed from conviction. In our positions of ministry and leadership, we need to prayerfully consider whether we are displaying conviction or arrogance. The line is easily blurred, and without pausing to reflect, and perhaps repent, conviction can erode to arrogance and begin to rot our ministries and witness for Christ. People are looking to us for strength and expecting solutions. The solution is not to blaze a self-directed trail leaving others in the dust because they couldn’t see things your way. The answer is to boast in our weakness and Christ’s strength. True leadership comes not through a self-willed, übermensch, “winner take all” platform, but through prayer and continued reliance upon the strength of the Lord through the Holy Spirit.

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