Leadership, Startup Opinion

Neumann, Kalanick and Holmes: When culture becomes cult

Michel Hogan /

WeWork Adam Neumann

WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann. Source: AP/Mark Lennihan.

Cult-like cultures are alluring and powerful, right up to when they aren’t.

There’s a growing pile of people who, inflated by messianic zeal, march their organisations off a cliff. Adam Neumann, Travis Kalanick and Elizabeth Holmes are recent high-profile examples, but it is hardly a new phenomenon, or even one only afflicting startups.

In chapter six of the seminal 1996 book Built to Last, Collins and Porras explored “cult-like cultures”. I’m sure they didn’t mean the term quite so literally. Still, if you take the hallmarks they mention of “fervent ideology, indoctrination, tightness of fit and elitism”, the difference can be hard to see.

Of course, not all compelling cultures take the cult too far. Nordstrom, Patagonia, Southwest Airlines, and likely most successful organisations, have the above-mentioned elements in spades. Perhaps the difference is whether the cultures get fed by an ego run amok or something else.

The recent example of WeWork is a movie-sized example of the former (because I’ll be shocked if someone isn’t writing the script as I write this). 

Struggling for survival amid vaporised valuation and cut-backs, WeWork is a deeply tarnished ideal. In a recent Vanity Fair article, former WeWork executives are quoted saying “you don’t bring bad news to the cult leader”. The ousted chief executive officer is well known in equal part for his outlandish pronouncements and personal charisma.

“WeWork executives had long grown accustomed to Neumann’s belief that the laws of economics — even reality itself — didn’t apply to him. It was in the nature of unicorns that they bent reality, and that certainly had been true of WeWork,” the article reads.

Culture is a mighty force. The collective will it unleashes can turbo-charge endeavour and do the seemingly impossible. But when that becomes wilful blindness to problems and an inability to question decisions you’ve entered the danger zone.

All the most recent examples had untested leaders, given piles of money for untried business ideas. And so using that list there is more than a few cultures at risk of falling.

I’m certainly not saying that any organisation with those factors will flip culture to cult — it takes a certain conviction to achieve such a seismic shift. But put bluntly, if you start to believe your own bullshit and demand unquestioning fealty, that walk off the cliff is likely not far behind.

And if you’re working alongside someone who has that kind of mindset, it’s probably a good idea to jump before the fall.

See you next time.

NOW READ: Why WeWork doesn’t work — and what entrepreneurs can learn from the saga

NOW READ: WeWork dropped the best idea it had: So, will anyone pick it up?

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Michel Hogan

Michel is an independent brand counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter at @michelhogan.