I’m slow reading What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz, and writing a series of posts to capture some key points from each major section. The first is the story and lessons from Toussaint Louverture rise.

The chapters on Louverture center around some themes that helped him establish a culture so strong that it led to the only successful slave revolt in human history. Those themes include (with examples from the business world):

  • Keep what works: Understand what parts of your business make it work well. In transforming culture, don’t throw those out. For Apple, the dedication to vertical integration - owning software and hardware - was something Steve Jobs kept as part of his transformation of Apple in the 90’s and 2000’s.

  • Create shocking rules: Rules need to be memorable, straightforward, and answer the why - on a daily basis. “If you’re on time, you’re late” speaks to the value of our own and others’ time. “No powerpoint in meetings” takes the crutches away and forces clarity of thought through written documents.

  • Dress for success: By dressing the part, Louverture forced his soliders to think of themselves as disciplined soldiers, not just fighters. In the business world, Michael Ovitz (of CAA fame) set an example by wearing suits every day. That example set an expectation of professionalism that trickled down to the entire organization.

  • Incorporate outside leadership: Understand the gaps in your organization, and then bring in the experts that can fill in those gaps. When a business is pivoting to a different customer type or go to market strategy, you need leadership that doesn’t have to learn on the job. Not that the latter cannot succeed, it’s just much harder to rewire DNA from within. Culture calcifies until someone external comes in to break the mold.

  • Make decisions that demonstrate priorities: The best example here is of Reed Hastings kicking DVD executives out of the Netflix leadership meeting during their shift to streaming. It was a bold decision that demonstrated that Netflix needed to become a streaming-first company.

  • Walk the Talk: A simple principle - live your truth and lead by example. Ben himself acknowledges it’s not the only way to lead, but the lack of it quickly erodes trust within a team. The attitudes and actions of those at the top have a trickle down effect - for better and for worse.

  • Make Ethics Explicit: Ben highlights Uber’s hyper-competitive culture was what drove its success, but also it’s downfall amidst the sexual harrassment scandal. What Uber failed to do was establish an ethical foundation upon which it’s values were to be practiced. It led to people misapplying competitiveness to silence coworkers, squeeze profits from drivers, and so much more. Dara reversed course and introduced a new set of values - one that included a strong proclamation - We do the right thing. Period.