“WeCrashed,” or, How to Succeed in Business Without Becoming a False Prophet

Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway in WeCrashed (AppleTV)

As mentioned in this space, my job came to an end in early April, a result of what is referred to in the business world as a “restructuring.” All of which is fair and fine and I accepted it like a pro, staying a month to help with the transition and hopefully left on a decent note.

Needless to say, this made the experience of watching shows like Severance and WeCrashed deeper and stranger, as one very real workplace situation dovetailed with AppleTV’s ‘fictional’ ones.

I never rented a WeWork desk, but I sense I would have liked it, especially the ping-pong tables and beer on tap. I might not have grokked Adam and Rebekah Neumann’s vision for elevating the world’s consciousness, but if the space was cozy enough, I would at least have felt somewhat at home. The Neumanns saw WeWork as a chance to create community, and that’s always been high on my list as well. My last job was at a community center, and before that, I was part of that cuddly clique, the NYC theater scene.

So I get the “we’re in this together” thing, if not necessarily the woo-woo of it. Still, if you’re going to work for a mission-based organization, you do need to drink some of the company kool-aid — and if you believe in the mission, so much the better. What my last place did wasn’t earth-shattering, but it made a difference in the lives of many through innovative health and wellness programming, classes for “modern agers,” and opportunities for young adults with disabilities and special needs. The place before that was dedicated to the development and production of new American work for the theater.

As I cast about for new work, I find myself wondering, to what extent are belief and passion necessary to get the job done? Diving into any job requires understanding, commitment, and perseverance. You may not have to believe, as the Neumanns’ minions did, that you’re changing the world, but you’ve got to have a fundamental understanding of the big picture, the wider purpose — and if you‘ve got a genuine love for it, so much the better.

The WeWork team devoted themselves to a leader who believed that charisma could protect his company from financial losses. The kool-aid they drank wasn’t so much WeWork’s mission as Adam’s mojo. Even in the face of Rebekah’s missteps (her assertion that a woman’s job was to manifest a man’s destiny, her disastrous foray into preschool administration), even as the S-1 became the laughingstock of Wall Street, the team manifested a false future, best represented by the deluded employee who purchases a $30,000 handbag, believing she would soon be making millions.

This kind of folly is rare at non-profits, where the line between revenue and expense is razor-thin, but one can see how, in the grip of beguiling leaders willing to drive their company off a cliff in the name of world domination, one could become blind to the red flags. I’ve been fortunate in that the companies I’ve worked for have been well-run, with board governance that exhibited none of the laissez-faire attitude with which Masayoshi Son and Benchmark Capital apparently regarded WeWork.

I’ve also worked for strong leaders, and done everything in my power to help them realize their vision. In the theater world, leadership positions are usually split between artistic and managing sides, but everything we did was in service of a singular artistic vision, no matter whether you worked in marketing, development, carpentry, or accounting. At a community center, where a CEO has to be, in a sense, all C-suite jobs rolled into one, we on the executive team gave 150% to support her vision for the company.

There comes a point in every working person’s life when you need to stop and evaluate whether what you’re doing is contributing to your own growth. That’s a no-brainer when you’re terminated, but sometimes, you need a wakeup call, like the time, two jobs ago, my superiors read me the riot act to get my ass in gear after thirteen years of doing the same thing over and over. I believe I became a better employee as a result. Looking at my last gig, if I’m honest with myself, maybe it was time to say goodbye. Believing in a mission and loving one’s co-workers will only get you so far.

Since the last day at the old digs, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching, as these situations tend to make us do. What makes me happy? What kind of job would I want to spend the next decade or so doing? And what if there isn’t a job out there for me? What if, in order to continue contributing to my family’s income, I need to make the work happen myself? In that case, what kind of leader would I be? At the community center, I prided myself on fairness, opportunity, and morale, but there’s more to leadership than that.

I have a while to mull this question. But I know one thing: it’s not the type of leader who drags a giant gong into the center of the workplace and starts a call and response chant. It’s not the type of leader who buys private jets and mansions in six locations. It’s not about fame, adulation, and cult status. Money’s nice, but happiness has its place, too.

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