What can WeLearn from WeWork?

WeWork is in trouble. This startup with a meteoric rise and the charismatic CEO is starting to show signs of stress. [1]Adam Neumann had an idea of generating workspace for people to work by negotiating office space between building owners and small business owners.  It’s not a new concept.  But Neumann’s idea became wildly successful by helping the owners of big office buildings to think differently about how they leased their office space.  Rather than looking for the big business to lease tons of office space, Neumann taught these landlords to consider a lease from several smaller businesses.  He used technology to connect people in need with empty office space.

The business model that Neumann uses is neither new nor revolutionary.  He became the Airbnb for office buildings.  And let’s face it, a lot of office space sits empty all over the world.  This trend is growing in a global economy where a lot of the world economy is shifting from manufacturing goods to providing services.  WeWork’s trajectory for success looked like it had a bright future.  For Neumann the timing couldn’t be better to offer this company to the public in an Initial Public Offering (IPO).   After all, what investor wouldn’t want a piece of a company which started in 2010 and is now valued at almost $47Billion- or so, he thought.  Preparing the company for it’s IPO turned a spotlight on the company that caused people to see problems that scared many of them away from investing in WeWork.  Now the company is in rapid decline.  How could a company that was so successful in such a short period of time, also start to decline so quickly?  I think there’s a leadership lesson to be learned by what’s happing to WeWork right now.  So, the better question is, “What can welearn from WeWork”?  (Do you see what I just did there with the word we?)

Charisma can only take you so far

If good looks and a charming personality are the only ingredients for success, there’s no stopping Adam Neumann.  This Israeli born business leader has both in spades.  More than just being a pretty face, he had a bold vision and the courage to go after his dream.   Most leaders know that people follow passion, power and persuasion.  This means, if you want to lead great people you have to be a great leader personally.  Neumann’s company has more than 5000 employees.  That’s a lot of talented people working for this charismatic leader.

Adam Neumann leads more than 5000 people at WeWork


But just having a bold vision isn’t enough to attract or retain talented people.  A leader must be able to inspire passion for that vision in the people that work for the company.  This is why powerful communicators are able to draw a crowd, even if their ideas are outrageous.  People also follow power.  Most of us want to be connected to the guy or gal that is going somewhere.  We have the subconscious notion that maybe that leader will take us with them if we join them on their journey.  We hope that our power will increase as the power of the leader increases.  That’s what makes power so attractive.  Lastly, most people will make great sacrifices for a leader that convinces us to believe in an idea or a cause.   You could summarize this whole paragraph by saying that people follow people.  And the more charismatic a leader is the more people will follow him or her.

Character is king

Charisma can only take a leader so far.  Character will always take a leader further than charisma.  At some point, followers want to know what kind of person the leader is on the inside.  Followers, business partners, investors want to know if they can trust the leader.  This is where things started to go south for Neumann. Charisma might attract followers but only character will keep them.

The Bible makes a fascinating statement about business character in Proverbs 11:1. Dishonest scales are detestable to the Lord, but an accurate weight is his delight.[2] In Old Testament times people bought and sold grain at the market. When you went to the market to buy spices or grain a weight was placed on one side of a scale and then grain was measured out on the other side of the scale. The Bible phrase for accurate weight means being honest in business. Some dishonest businesspeople in Old Testament times would hollow out the weight a little bit. Therefore, you were technically buying the same amount of money for less grain than someone else in the market was charging. Inaccurate weights is a Bible phrase to demonstrate crooked business practices. This Proverb is repeated three times in this one book of the Bible. God really wants us to know how serious he takes the character of a leader because this verse is repeated in Proverbs 20:10 and 20:23. When investors started looking into the real value of WeWork, many believe that this company’s net worth is more accurately less than $20 Billion.  That weight isn’t even close to what the scales indicate for this company.

What goes up must come down

What goes up must come down. This phrase is true about playing ball on an elementary school playground. It’s equally true about business in the international marketplace. When business is good everyone wants to get on board. When business starts to go bad people start looking for other employment.

Children learn about gravity at a young age on the playground.  It doesn’t take long to figure out that a ball hit into the air will come down again. Some balls will travel higher than others. Some balls will stay in the air longer than others. However, every ball hit in the air will eventually make its way back down.  There is also a leadership gravity in business. Some leaders will travel farther than others. Some leaders will last longer than others. Every leader will eventually start to decline. Maybe it’s retirement. Maybe it’s a restructuring of the organization. Maybe it’s what Adam Neumann is facing right now – the board of directors looking to replace him as CEO of the business he helped start. This is a business example of what children learn on the playground- what goes up must come down.

If you want to last as a leader, learn a lesson from Adam Neumann and WeWork. Charisma might help you recruit a lot of fans, but only character will turn those fans into loyal followers. At some point, every leader will transition. Great leaders make sure the organization is better long after they are gone.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2019/09/23/the-wild-over-the-top-story-of-WeWork-the-once-heralded-unicorn-is-now-under-the-microscope/#537c62774342

[2] Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), Pr 11:1.

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