WeWork and Falling for the Cult of Personality

1 May 2021 — blog

By all accounts, Adam Neumann was as charismatic and engaging as any cult leader. All the articles, the podcast, and of course this documentary say he got his company an incredible valuation by being, essentially, very, very cool.

Hulu’s WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn emphasizes this over and over. Adam Neumann was engaging. He smoked weed! He showed up to meetings late! He was weird and eccentric! All this is true. But “was Adam Neumann very, very cool?” is not the only question that needs asking—not anymore. It has been over a year since WeWork went under, and Adam Neumann has been dissected and discussed ad nauseum since then. Unfortunately, Making and Breaking tells us the same story, but this time with nicer footage.

Founders are important to startups (which is how I’ll refer to WeWork for now, though the first of many questions I wish Making and Breaking would have asked is, “How is a ten-year-old company valued at billions of dollars still a startup?”). Jack Dorsey was one of four people who founded Twitter, and in fact left for a while, but you’d never know that from the way people talk. In a close parallel to WeWork, Elizabeth Holmes was synonymous with Theranos, to fatal effect. In both her case and Neumann’s, their bluster duped investors and the public alike. They all bought the bullshit.

A documentary about the bullshit, though, shouldn’t buy it. It should push back on that bullshit, interrogate it. Making and Breaking addresses some context around millennials, but doesn’t delve much deeper. Why do we want so desperately to find geniuses and bestow incredible wealth on them because they are good public speakers? Why do we nurture egomania and hero worship for people who just came up with a company idea but can’t follow through? Why do we dump billions of dollars into companies that lose money for a decade? Why is the bullshit so effective for the echelon of people who run an entire, fragile economy? 

The problem of course, is that asking those questions requires looking at structures and people outside of Neumann’s magnetic field, and that could paint a more complicated picture – one that certainly couldn’t end with a saccharine coda about “the power of community,” as if WeWork’s working environment was otherwise completely healthy and fine—which, of course, was exactly Neumann’s bullshit.

Examining his bullshit means looking at his childhood on an Israeli kibbutz and how he used a Zionist colonial structure to prop up his mythology and lend an aura of importance and spirituality to something as mundane as coworking space. It would mean paying more than lip service to the fact that his genius wasn’t really that coworking space, but gobbling up real estate in order to sell it to desperate workers in a recession, and have his company rent from himself. It would mean asking why companies in other industries are valued “like tech companies,” which would in turn mean asking why we value tech companies so highly in the first place. It would mean exploring why a supposedly genius investor, Masayoshi Son of SoftBank, allowed himself to be so fooled by a guy with long hair after a quick slideshow in a car ride and a tour of a sleek office space.

It would also mean exploring the culture at WeWork beyond Neumann’s personality. Sexual assault, employee abuse, racism – these may have stemmed from workplace culture that started at the top but cannot be solely pinned on Neumann’s charisma. Interviewing one employee who spoke to the cult-like atmosphere inside WeWork is indicative of this documentary’s disinterest in diving into the grimier side of the company: the parts that didn’t involve Neumann, fundraising, or interior design. (Or, again, cheesy montages that seem to endorse WeWork’s community philosophy.)

Elizabeth Holmes’ bullshit is more easily analyzed—a pretty blonde who carefully cultivated (or tried) a Jobs-inspired image of wealth and genius fooled a bunch of old men by sounding smart. We understand the con better, especially because the narrative of a lying woman is well-established. The excellent Bad Blood by John Carreyrou felt like an indictment, even if it wasn’t clear of what. I wrote in a review at the time: 

it posed questions i think we are only seeing the beginning of. theranos is clearly an indictment of something, but is it silicon valley culture writ large? the pursuit of wealth? bravura founders like elizabeth holmes and, hovering off screen, adam neumann? is it a cautionary tale about investors, coworkers, friends, bystanders who simply did not both asking questions, or did not listen to uncomfortable answers?

I read it in 2020; WeWork had already crashed. However, Theranos came long before WeWork, so I don’t believe Carreyrou had the same obligation to answer those questions. WeWork is, essentially, not our first rodeo, and it’s long past time to dig in.

Making and Breaking is not the only documentary to emerge in the recent past that falls for the bullshit. Before I get into my other subject though, I ask you to imagine discussing Charles Mason and not acknowledging the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, the misogynistic society from which young women were attempting to escape during that time, and civil rights upheaval and a society in flux. This is hard to picture for many reasons: Charles Manson looked crazy with wild eyes and unkempt hair so it’s harder to take him at his word, murder is sexier than bad real estate strategy so we hunger for more information, and of course Joan Didion’s seminal essay “The White Album” is mostly about that moment in time and uses the Manson family for context rather than the other way around.

In late summer & fall 2020, two NXIVM-related documentary series dropped simultaneously. STARZ’ Seduced follows one young woman, India Oxenberg, as she tries out an Executive Success Program class and falls deeper and deeper into the cult until eventually, she joins DOS, the sex cult for which NXIVM as a whole became notorious. It’s a story about indoctrination, showing how India, who seems smart, curious, levelheaded, and supported by family, can still become a sex slave. It, I will also say, has some absolutely explosive footage of Keith Raniere speaking—which is important. So much of what Raniere says to his most devoted followers sounds like total nonsense from the outside, ranging from wellness babble to truly disturbing “just asking questions” about child rape. “How could someone fall for that?” is the perennial cult question, and Seduced does a good job walking the viewer along the path of the answer.

The Vow does not. I only watched a few episodes, but its fatal flaw is the same as Making and Breaking—it buys Raniere’s bullshit. Our heroes were high up in the organization and seem to be assuaging their guilt by repeatedly talking about just how convincing Raniere was, how much of a genius he seemed to be. The documentary is so desperate to paint the subjects as heroes that it ends up falling prey to the exact same tactics they did. I want to make it clear—Keith Raniere is an idiot. Listening to him talk makes him sound empty and stupid. All his crap about “highest IQ,” so many degrees, whatever, they all sound exactly as real as the stories peddled by Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard (from whom Raniere took significant inspiration). The Vow doesn’t ask why on earth anyone would listen to this guy and decide to enslave others on his behalf; it essentially takes Keith at his own word that he’s really, really smart.

Making and Breaking takes Neumann at his word that he’s really, really smart too (and don’t forget: very, very cool), just as a master manipulator rather than a sex cult leader. While it’s understandable for the interviewees in the documentary to buy into Neumann’s spiel, the film is incomplete because it situates itself within the narrative. I believe as I said that founders are incredibly important when discussing startups, but we have to start standing outside that narrative and questioning how it emerged. Some coverage of WeWork certainly does this; Intelligencer‘s “The I in We” explored the WeWork culture and Neumann’s less-slick strategies more than Making and Breaking long before the company crashed. But too often founders or figureheads are presented as liars, yes, but ones so skilled that they exist on another plane. If we don’t insist on diving further, the only result will be another documentary about another charismatic founder who destabilized jobs, lives, and potentially economies, with bullshit. If we, commentators and spectators alike, keep falling for it, we’re just more people within the cult of personality.