What You Do Is Who You Are: A book review by Bob Morris

What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture
Ben Horowitz
HarperBusiness (October 2019)

“Culture is to a company as nutrition and training are to an aspiring professional athlete.”

I agree with Ben Horowitz’s observation. Also, that if an athlete is talented enough, completes a sufficient number of hours of “deep practice” under expert supervision,  they’ll succeed despite poor nutrition and training. Conversely, superior nutrition and training do not ensure success. Otherwise, having both but only both, almost anyone could become a peak performer.

Long ago, I concluded that what determines an organization’s culture is what it does, how it does it, and why it does it…every day at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. That seems to be compatible with the title of Ben Horowitz’s latest book: What You Do Is Who You Are.

He offers several examples of cultures that (a) can be set deep in people’s minds, (b) repaired whenever necessary, (c) succeed in a variety of different contexts, and (d) scale for more than a few years. Horowitz did NOT write this book to explain how almost any organization led by almost anyone could do that. Rather, he provides a “leader’s tool box” and suggests how who those read his book could perhaps make best use of it.

As I worked my way through Horowitz’s narrative, I was again reminded of how important strong leadership is to successful cultures in the sports worlds. For example, Boston Celtics, Montreal Canadiens, New England Patriots, and New York Yankees as well as Alabama football, Tennessee women’s basketball, and UCLA men’s basketball.  However different Horowitz’s exemplars may be in most respects, all of them was a very strong leader, notably Toussaint Louverture, samurai who followed bushido practices, Shaka Senghor, and Genghis Kahn.

Briefly, Louverture led the only successful slave revolt in human history; following the bushido code enabled Moro’oka Hiko’uemon and other samurai to rule Japan for seven hundred years and shape modern Japanese culture; sentenced to a Michigan prison for a murder he did commit, Senghor became leader of the tightest, most brutal gang in the yard — “and then transformed it into something else”; as for Genghis Khan, he built the world’s largest empire.

Horowitz devotes a separate chapter to each. Also, he juxtaposes with them  counterparts and correlations in today’s business world. Readers will no doubt make their own comparisons and contrasts. In my case, I was intrigued by what might have happened if Genghis Khan were CEO of Sears and challenged by Walmart and Costco, or CEO of Blockbuster and challenged by Netflix, or CEO of Hertz and challenged by Enterprise, or of American Airlines and challenged by Southwest.

Each of the “oak trees” that comprise the current Fortune 50 was once an “acorn.” Strong leadership obviously played an essential role in their growth but Horowitz asserts — and I agree — that culture was the decisive competitive advantage. That’s what Southwest’s then chairman and CEO, Herb Kelleher, had in mind when explaining his airline’s dominance: “We take great care of our people, they take great care of our customers, and our customers take great care of our stockholders.” For years, Southwest’s profits and net value were greater than its nine largest competitors’ were…combined.

Ultimately, individuals as well as organizations really do identify and define themselves by their performance: what they do, how well they do it, and why they do it…every day. Some have ruined a promising career with what they say…or don’t say. It is so easy to proclaim, “I am Spartacus!” (or “I am Southwest Airlines!”) but validation can only be made by embracing and then personifying the given core values.

To those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one, I highly recommend both of Ben Horowitz’s two books as well as two others by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson: Rework and, more recently, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.


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