Gurbaksh Chahal, A Shining Example of How Not to Behave in Tech


Depending on how you look at it, the story of Gurbaksh Chahal, once a darling of the tech world and a symbol of the American Dream, could serve as a cautionary tale in early success, hubris or a playbook in how not to lead. Chahal, in the latest string of lawsuits against him, faces allegations from his former partner Yousef Khraibut for wrongful termination. If the allegations hold up in court, they could cause significant damage to Chahal and his place in Silicon Valley.

The lawsuit, as covered by the SF Business Times, cites complaints, ranging from breach of contract to workplace harassment. Overall, it seems to indicate that people like Chahal are simply not fit to be leaders A leader ought to inspire his people and promote a vision of a better world, that they then go out and built. A study by HBS says leaders who project warmth -- even before establishing their competence -- are more effective than those who lead with toughness and force.

Chahal's actions over the past few years go against all of that. Seemingly intoxicated by his early success and exits, he has gone to act with the same hubris that has brought down the Roman Empire. His well-documented successes were perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to him. They enabled him to act infallible, which in turn made him reckless and abusive. When someone outright believes the world revolves around them, people in their vicinity become disposable, movable objects. "If a colleague or a partner misbehaves today, I will replace them with another" they think. Creating such a façade of stability is the surest way to bring entire systems (and companies) down. Such misguided attempts to engineer false stability by suppressing undesirable volatility (ie. dissent) create a fragile system that is doomed to fail in the long run.

Chahal's reaction to this latest lawsuit (as well as the ones he previously faced) further fortifies his lack of leadership ability. Immediately, he adopted an approach that psychologist Jennifer Freyd calls "DARVO:" Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offend. He took to social media to dismiss the claims as outright "extortion" and lacking in any evidence. He spoke about a grand conspiracy plan against him and his companies without citing any evidence. This is all fine -- the truth notwithstanding -- except for the part that his reaction hints that there might be a grand conflation in Silicon Valley between being a leader and being a jerk. Many seem to think the two go hand in hand.

To make matters worse, when news of the lawsuit got out, Chahal proceeded to mass-email reporters announcing that the allegations against him were dismissed. He did leave one small thing out: it was re-filed in federal court, thereby giving Khraibut (the plaintiff) a larger platform to make a case with broader implications against Chahal.

In the world of management, being a trustworthy leader is crucially important to the success of the overall mission. Trust increases information sharing, openness, fluidity, and cooperation. When leaders-- however competent they may be -- behave recklessly and treat employees harshly, they risk losing their trust. Without a foundation built on trust, people may comply outwardly with a leader's wishes, but they're much less likely to conform privately -- to adopt the values, culture, and mission of the organization in a sincere, lasting way.

As the saying goes: "trust grows at the speed of a coconut tree and drops at the speed of a coconut." In this case, it sure seems that the coconut has dropped and has hit a few people along the way.