One-fifth of WeWork’s workforce is being laid off. The office rental company is yet another “Zombie Business.” That’s not good for workers. Nor is it good for capitalism.
For years, WeWork founder Adam Neumann liked to crow, “We’re making a capitalist kibbutz.” In Israel, a kibbutz is a collective community. We-first. WeWork became founder-first. Neumann had WeWork shell out $60 million for his own private jet. WeWork had to buy the “We” trademark from Neumann for $5.9 million (he paid it back after this became public). Neumann cashed out more than $700 million from the company ahead of its IPO.
And what a planned IPO it was. The filing exposed serious problems in the company. In the first six months of 2019, WeWork lost $1.4 billion on $1.5 billion in revenue. It was so bad, Softbank’s Vision Fund paid Neumann $1.7 billion to go away. So much for Neumann’s capitalist kibbutz. So much for one-fifth of WeWork’s workforce.
Truth be told, Neumann is me-first, we-second. How did this happen? Over time, Neumann became self-unaware. “Leaders have to be self-aware. They have to understand their flaws and the impact they have on others,” writes science journalist Daniel Goleman. As Neumann became the darling of investors, he became deficient in self-awareness.
This is not unusual. For six years, Sydney Finkelstein’s research team at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business studied business breakdowns. As companies become successful, they create “insulated cultures that systematically exclude any information that could contradict its reigning picture of reality.” They’re Zombie Businesses, sustained by an “inaccurate picture of reality” that disdains any damning information from outside the company. Self-awareness declines.
Self-awareness requires a clear conscience. Without a clear conscience, capitalism becomes corrupt, as Catholic commentator John Richard Neuhaus warned years ago. “Capitalists with no conscience are a problem; capitalists with a bad conscience are a bigger problem.” They’re not self-aware. They create Zombie Businesses, slowly killing capitalism.
Self-awareness starts with recognizing I am aware of only five percent of my motives and behaviors. Outsiders see what I miss. Organizational leaders are aware of only 40 percent of their motives and behaviors. Outsiders see what insiders don’t. William Wilberforce called the benefits of an outsider “the friendly reproofs of a real friend.” Adam Neumann didn’t have any real friends. He had an insulated culture, disdaining any damning outside views.
This is not solely a business problem. I’ve seen firsthand insulated cultures in ministries, especially ones built around oratorically gifted men (I’ve been described as oratorically gifted!). Years ago, Kathy and I attended a conference in Oxford hosted by a well-known international ministry. During a ministry report, an Oxford student, a Muslim, stood up and respectfully suggested this report was factually untrue, or at least incomplete. She had firsthand knowledge of another side of the story. She was politely shown the door.
So much for Proverbs 18:17: “The person who tells one side of a story often seems right, until someone else comes and asks questions.” Outsiders often ask unsettling questions. I saw this in another ministry where I worked. The founder brooked no dissent. At one point, I watched him threaten to quit when a staff colleague questioned the efficacy of one of the ministry’s projects. There is such a thing as Zombie Ministries.
In business and ministries, the solution is the same: organizational ambidexterity, using both hemispheres. The right hemisphere is the outside view, often called “prophetic.” The left hemisphere is the inside view. Outsiders bring life to organizations by disrupting insider assumptions. If an organization has no outsiders, it becomes left-brained, ultimately lifeless.
Zombies are the living dead, ultimately lifeless. But recognizing this lifelessness requires taking Jesus’ definition of life seriously: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Zombies can travel the globe and have lots of toys, but they don’t know the truth about themselves.
My hope is people get tired of Zombie Businesses and Ministries. If we’re serious about renewing the world—in large and small ways—we have to rotate with the planet as God created it to rotate, a disrupt/innovate (take/eat) cycle yielding real life. This requires an outside/inside infrastructure. If you want to discuss this further, shoot me an email.
 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (Bantam, 2012)