What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture Hardcover – 29 October 2019
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About the Author
Ben Horowitz is the cofounder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm that invests in entrepreneurs building the next generation of leading technology companies. The firm's investments include Airbnb, GitHub, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. Previously he was cofounder and CEO of Opsware, formerly Loudcloud, which was acquired by Hewlett-Packard for $1.6 billion in 2007. Horowitz writes about his experiences and insights from his career as a computer science student, software engineer, cofounder, CEO, and investor in a blog that is read by nearly ten million people. He has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Fortune, the Economist, and Bloomberg Businessweek, among others. Horowitz lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Felicia.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. An award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or coauthored twenty-two books and created eighteen documentary films, including Finding Your Roots. His six-part PBS documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, earned an Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Program-Long Form, as well as a Peabody Award, Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, and NAACP Image Award.
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In the eighteenth century, sugar took over the economy of the western hemisphere and the heart of this exploitative system was France’s Caribbean colony, Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti). Occupying the western third of the second largest island in the Caribbean, the French violently forced enslaved Africans to plant, harvest, and process sugar cane.
Enslaved people resisted this oppressive system whenever they could, but punishments were severe and painful, often life-ending. In 1789, when France was in revolutionary turmoil, the disenfranchised free people of color in the Caribbean began breaking down the rigid hierarchy of the 18th century and called for equal rights as free Frenchmen. Enslaved people seized this opportunity to save themselves and eventually to overthrow the entire wretched system—this event has come to be known as the Haitian Revolution.
Horowitz is drawn to the Haitian Revolution because “the stamping out of slavery is one of humanity’s great stories. And the best story within that story is the Haitian Revolution.”
Horowitz argues that Toussaint Louverture’s leadership in the Haitian Revolution demonstrates that revolutionary cultural change is possible, even in the most extreme circumstances.
Horowitz draws seven business lessons from Toussaint Louverture’s strategy: keep what works, create shocking rules, dress for success, incorporate outside leadership, make decisions that demonstrate cultural priorities, walk the talk, and make ethics explicit. He then praises present-day business leaders who demonstrate these priorities.
The takeaway for leaders is that you can “make your own culture do what you want it to,” if you apply these lessons.
The bad news is that Horowitz’s analysis of the revolutionary change in Haiti is limited by his (mis)understanding of the lives of the enslaved people in colonial Haiti. “Slavery chokes the development of culture,” he argues, “by dehumanizing its subjects.” That was indeed the intent in many slavery societies, but enslaved people have never been culture-less. What Horowitz frames as revolutionary change is instead a cherry-picking of Louverture’s policies that, in fact, (in a modified version) maintained the status quo.
By denying the humanity of enslaved men and women, Horowitz then seeks to understand how Toussaint Louverture “reprogrammed slave culture.” In doing so, Horowitz taps into 19th century civilization discourse by arguing that Louverture “elevated their culture” to the level of French citizens. According to Horowitz, Louverture had successfully “transform[ed] slave culture into one respected around the world.”
The most grotesque example in the chapter “Toussaint Louverture Applied,” is Horowitz’s championing of the unique company culture at Amazon today that emphasizes “frugality.” Horowitz connects this with the lesson from Louverture that it’s important to create “shocking rules.” The shocking rule at Amazon is that no one is allowed to use a PowerPoint presentation.
Horowitz doesn’t analyze the diplomatic strategy or context of Louverture’s leadership, and neither does he discuss the effects of Amazon’s obsessiveness with frugality that set the stage for horrific working conditions for employees.
By transcending time and space and by distorting Louverture’s story so thoroughly, Horowitz is able to use the Haitian Revolution to champion a company known now for labor and human rights abuses for the benefit of the predatory leadership. This is the story you’d tell of the Haitian Revolution is you wanted to void it of its most revolutionary characteristics. In other words, Horowitz actually teaches about leadership conservatism in the face of popular transformations.
The good news is that the premise of Horowitz’s book is commendable; the past can and should suggest promising ways to question and shape the present. What, then, can we learn from the Haitian Revolution to help us address 21st century questions of leadership and company culture?
CEOs would do well to learn about the rank-and-file soldiers of the Haitian Revolution and the men and women who escaped into the woods to avoid French and Haitian rule. Leaders today could study the field workers who constantly resisted being forced back onto the plantations that they had just burned to the ground.
These men and women first changed the culture of the colony and then shaped that of the new country by relentlessly fighting for their vision of freedom—most explicitly seen in the “lakou” (the yard), a community-based social, familial, and economic way of life centered on subsistence farming and personal and social sovereignty.
The evidence of the Haitian Revolution suggests that leading cultural change depends on an integrated “top down” and “ground up” strategy that understands the existing culture rather than--as Horowitz suggests--trying to “reprogram” it.
Julia Gaffield is associate professor of history at Georgia State University.
Lots of good stuff, just have to mine it out from all the filler
But I would say that this book trumps the others, because a culture is what makes an organization tick even if the leaders are not there. As leaders are the stewards and gardeners of the organization culture, this makes this book even more important than the others above.