Travis Kalanick on when an entrepreneur becomes a burden to his business

Source ||  BY:Hamid Bouchikhi, Professor at Essec Business School, Director of the Centre of Excellence in Entrepreneurship

If everything we hear about Travis Kalanick’s personality and behavior is true, his issues would be likely be better addressed by a psychologist than a management researcher. Yet the global publicity frenzy surrounding his recent departure from Uber reminds us that this is, alas, a particular case of a common phenomenon in entrepreneurship.

We’re reminded that Steve Jobs was forced to leave Apple under similar circumstances to those surrounding the departure of Travis Kalanick. Here in France, in 1996, the co-founders of the Accor group had to abandon an empire they’d taken decades to build. The same year Guy Dejouany was forced to leave Compagnie Générale des Eaux, an organization he had not founded but had played a nonetheless important role.

Besides their strong personalities and u-turn circumstances, one might wonder what else these prominent personalities have in common. The answer is that they all express, in different ways, a particular version of what Canadian management researcher Dany Miller called the Icarus paradox[1] in his 1991 book The Icarus Paradox: How Exceptional Companies Bring About Their Own Downfall.

To sum it up in broad terms, the Icarus paradox is the process by which the factors of success for a given subject create the conditions for its failure. Like Icarus, his powerful wax wings helped him reach the sun… and the heat of this success melted the wings and caused him to fall from so high.

Dany Miller applied the myth of Icarus to the analysis of very large companies, such as IBM or Polaroid, whose strengths have become obstacles to their adaptation.

The adventures and eventual fall of Travis Kalanick offer just one example of how the Icarus paradox applies to entrepreneurship. Even when we leave aside extreme cases like his, we find a great number of situations where the entrepreneur becomes an obstacle to the growth – and sometimes even the very survival – of the business he or she created.

The ways through which entrepreneurs can burden the growth of their businesses are numerous. Many entrepreneurs have a very strong need to control everything related to their business and prevent growth in this way. Others have an emotional attachment to a product, a client or a modus operandi and ignore other strategic options. Some leaders seek growth at any price, including through costly acquisitions, to build an empire to match their thirst for power. Business ownership transfer experts are also familiar with many situations founding managers unwittingly prefer to “go down with the ship” rather than selling it to a third party who could give it a new life.


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