Silicon Valley has a jerk problem. The tech world has long turned a blind eye to cocky, boorish behavior by its entrepreneurs, and excused it as the cost of doing innovative work. What are a few ruffled feathers or broken business rules, goes the thinking, when you’re changing the world—and minting money? Travis Kalanick, who stepped down as CEO of Uber last week, embodied this approach more than most. (See Business Columns.) Kalanick built the ride-hailing giant in his image—arrogant, aggressive, and ambitious—and he was undeniably successful, upending the transportation industry in less than a decade and growing Uber into the most valuable startup in the world, worth nearly $70 billion. But he also oversaw a toxic work culture that repeatedly crossed legal and ethical lines, drawing allegations that the company harassed women employees, lied to regulators, spied on reporters, and stole trade secrets from competitors. And until last week, he was unrepentant in his pursuit of winning at all costs.
I blame Steve Jobs. The former Apple CEO famously thought nothing of publicly berating employees or claiming credit for work he hadn’t done, but is today revered for being the greatest chief executive of our time. He enshrined the idea that some businessmen are just so brilliant that the rules don’t apply to them. His example and those of other tech billionaires who acted like jerks on their way to the top have created the impression that innovation and nastiness necessarily go hand in hand. That should matter to consumers, and not just because Silicon Valley’s power and wealth have grown so vast. Technology is changing our lives at such a clip that laws and regulations can’t hope to keep up. The people creating the future are making up norms and standards as they go along, and we should want them to know the difference between r ight and wrong. We don’t have to demand that tech get nice. But we needn’t celebrate its worst instincts, either.