What’s it about?

In What You Do Is Who You Are (2019), venture capitalist and management expert Ben Horowitz offers his own definition of business culture. Through contemporary examples and some historical detours past such notables as Genghis Khan and the samurai, he offers fascinating advice on how to create a culture that’s best suited to your business.

About the Author:

Ben Horowitz is a venture capitalist, management expert, and New York Times best-selling author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things. He is a co-founder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and former president and CEO of the software company Opsware, which was bought by Hewlett-Packard for $1.6 billion in 2007.

You can reach a successful business for sure, by it can never happen by chance:

If you don’t have clones of the same person working for you, you must have different types of people there. Those people, each one individually, own a part in your success because they make up the culture, a non-perfect one. After all, no culture is perfect.

So, your job is to make each culture of each worker blend in with the others. Once you do that, your business will be able to stand in the face of all the problems that come knocking on your door.

This tidbit is specific to show you how to grow your organization with the help of experiences from historical figures and the present world of business.

Toussaint Louverture; a man that was bold enough to make a change:

As surprising as it sounds, throughout the historical lifespan, only one slave revolution was successful. It was led by Toussaint Louverture, a revolutionary leader, who learned during his work as a coachman over the years to read and communicate. From the bonds he formed with the white and French, he was able to free as many slaves as possible. People wonder that if slaves wanted freedom, why couldn’t they fight for it? It’s because they wanted it too much but never fought as hard.

Toussaint Louverture succeeded an army in Saint-Domingue and invaded Spain, Britain, and France by mixing the most useful lessons from the pre-existing slave culture and some of his ideas.

To make his army stronger, he applied the following tactics that can still apply to your business today:

• Keep whatever works: at first, he had 500 men and used already known slave songs to communicate with them. Some old techniques can come in handy, like the slave songs he used.

As another example, regardless of all the advice that came the way of Steve Jobs after he came back to Apple in 1997, he decided to stay put wherever his company stands and enhance the quality of his products. He held on to employees that understood the costumer’s experience and continued improving Apple’s culture that made it a unique brand.

Sometimes, all that your business needs is already within; it just takes a bit of change.

• Enforce non-traditional rules: trust fosters communication, and it’s mainly based on believing that there will be a future relationship. Louverture prohibited his married soldiers from having affairs with a mistress as a way of growing trust and loyalty in their souls. Try to create rules that draw loyal people to your organization.

The rules that exist in your organization should be agreed on, raise the question “why?”, easy to remember, and have a cultural impact to be beneficial to the max.

• Always dress for success: he made sure that his army’s clothes were the best so that they can see themselves as a high-class force. The way you dress, your workers change their orientation and feeds their motivation. 

• The corporation is first in leadership: accepting the help from leaders of a different culture is a great idea. If they are different from you, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong; they can have significant and new ideas. Your organization should be able to cope with new challenges and not stick to old and traditional methods. 

Let’s be real; no one wants an outsider to come in and start changing the techniques. But this is essential to better the chances of success and explore new grounds

• Your decisions should embody the cultural priorities: do the unexpected things but always make sure that what you do accents the culture.

You are the leader. You are the one that the workers look up to before they take any leap. Don’t be the reason your employees cower and refuse to make the right decisions. 

• Walk the talk: your job should be done when it’s due; an organization doesn’t work without organizing—stand by the rules.

No one knows everything. If you ever made a mistake, dare to confront your team and fix the error. This passes the right message across the public eye.

• Put morals in the front line: ethics can be unclear; take time to explain their importance and how they can enhance the organization. Boundaries, rewards, and results should be made crystal clear.

Communication is key. Sort each worker’s work out as soon as they start the job and keep everything clear and organized.

Think of the sweet taste of success once you are done; it motivates you to give your best:

It isn’t always about the numbers and profit. Your employees will not continue working for you unless you motivate them. Ancient Japan was ruled for almost 700 years by the class of warriors. They protected their culture by preparing a detailed structure for dealing with each dilemma. 

To the Samurai, culture was more than a set of beliefs and ethics, but actions that built decency. They believed in attention to details and artistry that arise from awareness of death – for they treat each moment as their last.

At rough times of crises, you need to accept the worst-case scenarios and rap around what will happen to your company if it fails. If you don’t like people’s opinions about your company, you need to develop your culture.

The Samurai code was based on these virtues:

  • Honor: all of the other ethics are built on honor. It guides each action.
  • Politeness: in their beliefs, it was a way to show respect.
  • Sincerity/Veracity: lies were demoralized as words were sacred.

Talk openly to people about the virtues that made you grow.

Use a different side of yourself in every different situation and prove your worth:

To reach success in more than one venue, you need to change your way of thinking and acting. Shaka Senghor conquered this art and succeeded in leading a gang while he was in prison for 19 years. Senghor studied and understood the culture of gangs in jail; then, he improved the missing aspects as he shined with power. While facing the old culture with modern ideas, Senghor tried to converse as much of the negative aspects as he could. He bonded with his team by eating, studying, and working out with them.

All it takes is understanding the vision of your team and having a will to improve to reach the ultimate success in your organization.

You decide your culture; people work by your opinion;

People make up the culture in an organization. If everyone makes decisions without the supervision of their leader, it will turn into a hot mess.

To test your organization culture’s quality is to see how your employees turned out. Good culture leads to a good employee. A bad one doesn’t since cultural behavior once taken in, gets spread everywhere.

Through the practice of inclusion, Genghis Khan made a mark in history:

Genghis Khan is still one of the most successful leaders in history. His influence was still present to almost 150 years after his death. He discovered a stable culture based on three principles:

  • Meritocracy: nobody is superior over the other. All people are equal, and everyone can lead.
  • Loyalty: all should have each other’s back to strengthen their bonds.
  • Inclusion: no aristocracy, all men had equal opportunities by adoption or marriage.

Each person in your company has a hand in your success:

Diversity is what makes organizations so unique. Embrace this and look into each person’s beauty to find where they fit the most. Get rid of the negative souls in the organization, the ones that don’t accustom to change and new cultures.

It’s pretty crucial for you as a leader to be deeply involved in strategy and its application. Make up your goal, then works towards it while allowing each employee to participate. 

Be yourself; being someone else will drive the magic away:

The first step to reaching the culture you want is knowing precisely what you want. Developing a culture should be based on relevant but flexible rules, enough to evolve and get better.

  • Always be yourself.
  • Work on your mistakes.
  • Apply real effort to achieve your goals.

The virtues you work by in your culture are only valid when they are doable. These virtues should make your culture special, amongst other cultures. 

The customers don’t always have good intentions; never lose sight of the real mission:

Costumers’ opinion is not always the right one. If you walk around trying to please your costumers and change things to their satisfaction, your company can easily collapse in no time.

When people quit too often from your company, employees do shocking things repeatedly, or you keep failing at priorities; that’s a sign that your culture is failing to do well.

At this point, you will need a remedy. An object lesson should be perfect. An object lesson is a dramatic alert you put as effective after something bad has happened. It might require you to change your culture, fire staff, or change the technique. If you don’t, you may lose a lot.


There is no perfect culture; all that matters is your will to grow and develop your culture. As an organization, no matter what you do, be sure always to have the following virtues:

  • Trust: this is the real test of bravery. Always come clean and confront your team with the truth. This will install trust.
  • Don’t fear bad news: to ensure your workers’ honesty and objectivity. Don’t hide from them, the less pleasant news.
  • Loyalty: this is the core of a culture that’s built on healthy relationships. Don’t be distant and form bonds.

If Toussaint Louverture, Genghis Khan, and Shaka Senghor could do it, so can you.