What You Do Is Who You Are - Critical summary review - Ben Horowitz

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What You Do Is Who You Are - critical summary review

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Management & Leadership and Corporate Culture & Communication

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0062871331

Publisher: Harper Business

Critical summary review

When tech entrepreneur and management expert Ben Horowitz founded his first company LoudCloud, almost every industry leader he went to for advice told him that nothing was more important than business culture. However, when he asked these leaders what exactly culture was and how he could affect his, none of them offered anything more than a vague answer. So, Horowitz spent the next two decades of his life reading, experimenting and trying to find a better, more comprehensive answer than “culture is corporate values” or, “culture is the personality of the CEO.” 

Published in 2019, “What You Do Is Who You Are” is the result of years of experience and purposeful research. A curious mix of history and business theory, the book goes over four models of leadership and culture building from the past and connects them to modern case studies in order to answer fundamental questions such as “who are we?” and “how should we treat other people?” Get ready to hear the surprising answers but, more importantly, get ready to discover what makes a culture work and how to build the right one!

Robert Noyce and the birth of the Silicon Valley

Decades ago, in an Esquire story titled “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce,” American journalist Tom Wolfe reproached modern American corporations for inadvertently adopting a feudal approach to organization. “There were kings and lords, and there were vassals, soldiers, yeomen, and serfs,” he wrote, with several East Coast companies primarily in mind. One of them was New York City-based Fairchild Camera, whose owner, Sherman Fairchild, lived in a glass and marble townhouse in Manhattan while his workers struggled to make ends meet. 

Robert Noyce, the man in the title of Wolfe’s story, ran a unit of Fairchild Camera called Fairchild Semiconductor. Noyce didn’t believe in traditional hierarchies, always preferring the know-how of the yeomen and serfs (that is, his individual engineers) to the conceitedness of the ivory-towered kings and lords, namely, the company’s managers and executives. So, little by little, he transformed Fairchild Semiconductor from an outdated East Coast workplace to an organizational model for the innovation-driven age that was about to come. The culture he instituted was a culture of independence and empowerment: everyone was in charge, and nobody was privileged. There were neither managers nor suits and the company’s building in San Jose was little more than a warehouse. Also, the best parking spaces weren’t reserved for the upper echelons, but for whoever got into work first. Most importantly, if an engineer had an idea he thought was worth pursuing, he was allowed to pursue it for an entire year before anyone could start inquiring about results.

In 1968, Noyce split off from Fairchild Semiconductor and, together with Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, founded a new company: the Intel Corporation. There, he took his egalitarian ideas to a new level, eliminating middlemen and vice presidents and giving his engineers virtually total freedom and substantial stock options. By making sure that everyone had ownership in the company (both literally and figuratively), Noyce inaugurated a new and better way to do business.

Thanks to Noyce, breakthrough ideas began to matter more than the fear of failure. This atmosphere of innovation and independence inspired many of his employees to venture forth into new frontiers and opportunities, and more than a few of them founded their own companies, taking the Intel culture with them. So, it is not an exaggeration to say that, without exactly meaning to, Noyce created the entrepreneurial culture of the 21st century; the culture of the Silicon Valley.

Culture and revolution: Toussaint Louverture

One can learn a lot about culture from Noyce and Intel, but – Horowitz believes – one can learn even more from several warriors and generals of the past, such as Toussaint Louverture, the samurai, Genghis Khan and Shaka Senghor. Not only because they were great leaders of many different types of people, but also because companies are very similar to gangs and armies in that they, too, can be understood as “large organizations that rise or fall because of the daily microbehaviors of the human beings that compose them.” But let us delve a bit deeper, starting with Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the only successful slave revolt in human history and, for all intents and purposes, the father of the modern state of Haiti.

A brief biography for those who know nothing or little about him. Louverture was born a slave in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1743 and began a military career soon after becoming a free man. In 1791, he became the leader of a slave rebellion on the island. First, he fought with the Spanish against the French and then – after the Republican government in France abolished slavery – with the French against the British. Finally, he turned against the wishes of Napoleon Bonaparte himself for the cause of Haitian independence. Gradually, he established control over the entire island and in 1801 named himself Govern-General for Life. Even though he died in a French prison before the final stage of the Haitian Revolution, his achievements set the stage for his army’s final victory, the culmination of which was the establishment of the sovereign state of Haiti on the first day of 1804.

The seven tactics of Toussaint Louverture

But how did Louverture succeed? How did he reprogram slave culture in a way that made him such a mighty leader and orchestrator? Horowitz believes that it all comes down to seven key tactics Louverture used to transform Haitian slave culture. He also believes that you can use each of them to change the culture of your own organization, whatever that may be:

  1. Keep what works. Unlike, say, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Louverture knew that people can’t easily absorb an entirely new system at once, so he kept several preexisting strengths to great effect. Steve Jobs did precisely the same when he returned to run Apple in 1997, which is why he was far more successful than his predecessor Gil Amelio, who wanted to purge Apple’s old culture entirely.
  2. Create shocking rules. To everyone’s surprise, one of the first things Louverture did was forbid his married officers from having concubines. The reason? Trust. If the officer’s wives couldn’t trust their word, why should their leaders? Shocking rules work flawlessly for Amazon as well, where values such as frugality and innovation are embedded in memorable commands such as “accomplish more with less” and “no PowerPoint presentations in meetings.”
  3. Dress for success. Louverture insisted that all of his soldiers wear most elaborate military uniforms. He knew that a dress code can change both behavior and culture. Mary Barra knew this as well, so her first rule of order after taking over as the CEO of General Motors in 2014 was “dress appropriately.”
  4. Incorporate outside leadership. Rather than executing captured or deserting French royalist officers, Louverture gave them governing positions within his army. They learned from him, and he learned from them. The lesson? Bring in outside leadership from the culture you need to master.
  5. Make decisions that demonstrate cultural priorities. Once the slaves won control of Haiti, many of Louverture’s soldiers wanted revenge on the plantation owners. Louverture, instead, let the owners keep their land, while insisting they start paying their laborers one-fourth of the profits. With that act, he showed that the revolution wasn’t about revenge, but about the economic well-being of the entire colony. 
  6. Walk the talk. Louverture was an embodiment of his own high standards. He led by both word and example, ending up wounded no less than 17 times during his military career. “For a culture to stick,” writes Horowitz, “it must reflect the leader’s actual values, not just those he thinks sound inspiring. Because a leader creates culture chiefly by his actions.”
  7. Make ethics explicit. Leaders are often explicit about goals and objectives, but silent on matters such as ownership and responsibility. You can’t expect anyone to obey an unwritten law. Louverture knew this, so “he underlined his instructions with strict enforcement.” In 1801, that all paid off.

Death, virtues and the samurai

The samurai, the warrior class of ancient Japan, ruled the country for seven centuries and pretty much shaped what we now deem to be Japanese culture. What enabled them to achieve this with virtually no fuss was bushido, “the way of the warrior,” their legendary moral code. But how? – wonders Horowitz. What made bushido so effective? What set of cultural virtues empowered the samurai for so long? And how did they manage to turn these virtues into actions? 

Well, that’s the whole point: they didn’t need to turn the virtues into actions, because, unlike other moral codes, bushido was never meant to be a set of principles, but a set of practices. The samurai understood a difference many modern CEOs never will: whereas “values” are merely what you believe in, “virtues” are what you do, and doing is what actually matters.

The most important samurai rule – as stated by “Bushido Shoshinshu,” one of the most famous collections of samurai wisdom – is far more shocking than any of the ones Louverture or Amazon ever came up with: “Keep death in mind at all times.” From the very beginning, this grim rule was the foundation of the entire warrior culture of ancient Japan. It should be of all modern businesses, claims Horowitz.

“Meditating on your company’s downfall,” he writes, “will enable you to build your culture the right way.” The samurai groomed themselves diligently every day, for fear it might be their last. “If slain with an unkempt appearance,” their code stated, “a warrior will be scorned by his enemy as being unclean.” The same holds true for companies: if yours goes bankrupt tomorrow, would that make your employees and customers unhappy? If the answer is “no,” then you should probably work on your company’s culture. “The glue that binds a company culture,” writes Horowitz, “is that the work must be meaningful for its own sake.”

The samurai found meaning in eight virtues: justice, courage, honor, loyalty, benevolence, politeness, self-control, and veracity. Rather than just listing them, they carefully defined them and then reinforced each of them through “a set of principles, practices, and stories.” These three things are what make a culture last. Without narratives, actions become meaningless, and without actions, principles are just a list pinned on a bulletin board to remind everyone not what they should be doing, but what’s missing from their personal and professional lives.

The warrior of a different way

Born James White, the man now known as Shaka Senghor ran away from an abusive home at the age of 14 and quickly became embroiled in the world of illegal drug trade. In the summer of 1991, at the age of 19, he shot and killed a man, for which he was sentenced to 17 years in prison for second-degree murder. He ended up serving two years more than that. In other words, by the time he left prison in 2009, he had spent precisely half of his life behind bars. Nowadays, he is an entrepreneur, a bestselling author, and a leading voice in criminal justice reform. How did that happen?

Well, while incarcerated, Senghor became a member of one of the five gangs running the prison: the Melanic Islamic Palace of the Rising Sun, or simply the Melanics. “Philosophical, highly disciplined, and ferocious when he [needed] to be,” Senghor quickly rose to the top of the gang, with other members particularly enticed by his virtuous type of governance which emphasized the importance of group unity and “walk-the-talk” leadership. In fact, that’s how he first got the gang’s attention: he challenged the behavior of previous leaders by pointing out that it was against the very code they had instituted for other members.

But Senghor didn’t stop there. Once he became the leader of the Melanics, he began transforming the group from a violent clique into a well-organized community of reformed and redeemed individuals. He made them eat, work out and study together. And he made them ask questions, all kinds of questions. Before Senghor, most of the Melanics felt they knew the answer to everything and that the answer was always aggression. With Senghor at the helm, they started wondering if they even knew the right questions.

“So, who is Shaka Senghor?” asks Horowitz. “Is he a ruthless criminal and prison gang leader, or a bestselling author, leader in prison reform, and contributor to a better society? Clearly he’s capable of being both. That’s the power of culture. If you want to change who you are, you have to change the culture you’re in. Fortunately for the world he did. What he did is who he is.”

Genghis Khan, master of inclusion

For many centuries, Genghis Khan was portrayed by European writers as a savage brute, a cruel barbarian conqueror whose troops pillaged and destroyed thousands of towns, while raping and murdering hundreds of thousands of innocent people. In reality, however, Genghis Khan was “the most effective military leader in history” – not only because he managed to conquer twice as much land as anyone else, but also because he did it in a culturally very innovative way.

When Genghis Khan was born in 1162, what would become the largest contiguous empire in all of human history not long after his death in 1227, was nothing more but a haphazard swarm of diverse and rivaling Mongol tribes who often fought each other. Genghis Khan successfully managed to unite them by giving them a common goal: an endless string of external enemies. That strategy, however, had worked just as well for thousands of generals before him and it is not the one that made the First Great Khan of Mongolia such an effective military leader. What made him great was his management style. 

You see, Genghis Khan prized loyalty so much that he executed the betrayers of his rival Jamuka. He also prized meritocracy, so he banned inherited titles and made it easy for anyone skillful enough to rise up in the ranks. Inclusive as few leaders before him, he guaranteed the freedom of religion within the realms of the Mongol Empire, protecting the rights of Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus alike. Moreover, he forbade the killing of holy people, be they priests, mullahs or shamans.

Borrowing a page from Alexander the Great’s book, he also encouraged marriage between tribes. He went a step further in this too, showing mercy toward talented individuals from defeated tribes such as the Uighurs, often sending many of their skillful workers – judges, generals, scribes, tax collectors – across the empire to give his country “ideological and spiritual legitimacy.” Through meritocratic inclusion, Genghis Khan created continent-wide consistency and, thus, made the most out of diversity. Modern companies have a lot to learn from him.

Final notes

In the foreword to “What You Do Is Who You Are,” noted American literary critic and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes the book as “a fascinating volume at the intersection of business, leadership, and culture studies” and, even more glowingly, as “an instant classic with the potential to redefine ‘what we do’ and, thereby ‘who we are.’”

Even people who might not agree with this description will probably remember Horowitz’s book for quite a long time as a unique contribution to the understanding of business culture. “Unique” doesn’t necessarily mean “good,” of course, but in this case – and at least in our opinion – it means something even better: “great.”

12min tip

Who you are is neither the values you list on the wall of your office nor the ones you actually believe in. Who you are is simply what you do.

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Who wrote the book?

Ben Horowitz is an entrepreneur, investor, blogger and American author. He is the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, one of the most renowned Venture Capital funds in the world. Ben began his career in Entrepreneurship by founding Opsware and later sold the company to HP for $ 1.6 billion. He is the bestselling author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, which is now available in over 16 languages. He also se... (Read more)

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