Ben Horowitz is not a biographer, but he channeled his inner Doris Kearns Goodwin to write What You Do Is Who You Are, a new book that examines the lives of historical figures such as Toussaint Louverture, who led a slave revolt in Haiti; conqueror and empire builder Genghis Khan; and prison reform activist Shaka Senghor. Their stories—and an exploration of the ancient samurai of Japan—help explain how strong cultures are built and how they apply to modern workplaces. “If I draw a line from Toussaint Louverture to [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings . . . then people would get it at a level that wouldn’t really be possible if I just kind of told it in a kind of generic, ‘business book’ way,” says the cofounder of venture firm Andreessen Horowitz.
Horowitz, who is appearing with Senghor at the Fast Company Innovation Festival on November 5, spoke with editor-in-chief Stephanie Mehta about the book’s unusual approach to imparting business lessons.
Fast Company: Why did you want to write a book on culture?
Ben Horowitz: When I started as a CEO, I spent a lot of time asking wise people: What should I be focused on as a CEO? What’s important? A lot of them said, “Focus on the culture.” And I would go, “Great. How do I do that?” Nobody could articulate how to do it or what it meant. It’s very complex and abstract: How do you get people to behave the way you want them to when you’re not looking? There was no instruction manual on this. So I thought the book was needed, and that’s kind of what drove me to want to write it.
If you wrote [a book that said], “Here are the 10 steps to having a good culture,” it’d be the worst book in the world. It would be trivial and not get to any of the real issues. I was thinking, What are the ways that I’ve been able to understand complex things?
FC: How did you come up with the structure of using real-world, non-business figures?
BH: Years ago, Prince released an album called 3121, and as part of that, he set up this club in Vegas, which he called 3121. And I went to see the show. He was supposed to come on at 10 p.m, but he’s always three hours late. In the meanwhile, he’s showing these video clips, a lot of cool old movies. There’s Cab Calloway, and then there are other guys from the ’30s doing these crazy dances that I’ve never seen, and all these interesting clothes. Then, like an hour into it, he started showing clips of himself [and you see] his dance [moves] clearly came from that. It was the first time I really understood Prince. So I thought, if I draw a line from Toussaint Louverture to [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings or from Genghis Khan to [former McDonalds CEO] Don Thompson, then people would get it at a level that wouldn’t really be possible if I just kind of told it in a kind of generic, “business book” way.
FC: Talk a little bit about how you found the subjects for the book. Were these individuals whom you had some knowledge of beforehand, or did they emerge through your research?
BH: I had a bigger set. I started from things that had influenced me culturally, and how I thought about [them] as a leader. One of the big things I wanted to do in this book was not have it be one of these “good versus evil” stories, where those people are bad and these people are good, or that’s a bad CEO and that’s a good CEO. I want it to be more of what it really is, which is humans against the gods. Why is the system so complex? Why does it cause people to suffer? How do you battle that? Running into the flaws of the good people helped me keep centered [on things like]: These are the things that they did that moved the culture in the right direction, and here’s the thing that moved it in the wrong direction.
FC: You said you started out with a much larger set of potential subjects. Was there anyone who didn’t make the cut that you feel particularly pained to have left on the cutting room floor?
BH: Bob Noyce, from Intel. I spent a lot of time trying to understand Queen Elizabeth I, just because she was in a culture where she wasn’t supposed to be. And it was very interesting, but it didn’t work. I chalk that up to my weakness as a writer [that] I couldn’t make that work. The other [was] Hannah Crafts, who wrote The Bondwoman’s Narrative.
FC: Not only are all your main subjects male, but these are some pretty muscular figures. Do you worry about attracting a larger audience?
BH: Another thing that you’ve probably noticed in the subjects is that there are no white men. Some of that is accidental, some is intentional, and let me give you the intentional part. [There are a lot of women and white men in the book, but they aren’t among the four main examples.] One difficult thing about trying to explain culture is, whatever culture you have is so invisible to you, because it’s just what you do. So I really wanted the examples all to be from places that the reader wasn’t from. That’s why [I featured] the slave culture of the Haitian revolution, the Mongol culture under Genghis Khan, prison culture, and ancient samurai culture—all places where people would be looking at it with a fresh set of eyes.
In terms of the violence or the masculinity part, I started with writing a book that I wanted to read, that I would find interesting and learn something from. If people don’t like me, they’re not gonna like the book, that’s for sure. As a reader, I always find in books that I read from people who are very different with very different backgrounds—be that The Bondwoman’s Narrative or Lean In—I learned a lot from those books. I never felt like even though they were from a pretty different perspective than me, if their perspective was well articulated, in some ways I get more out of those than I do out of books written by people who are like me. Maybe that’s just my view of how diversity works.
FC: Did you take yourself out of investing for a period of time so that you could really focus on the book?
BH: I was working for the firm the whole time. I didn’t make a lot of new investments during that period. A big part of my job is working with entrepreneurs, which was very helpful for me, because I would be thinking about the concepts and then talking to them and understanding how they were thinking about things and where they were struggling.
I’d been working on the concepts for many years, but when I actually signed to do the book, I had them give me an 18-month deadline, which is much longer than you normally get for a business book. That’s how I worked through it. But yeah, it was hard. My wife told me, “You’re not allowed to write another book.”
FC: One of the other things that you write about is ethics. How do you think about ethics at this time when we’re seeing lots of ethically challenged leadership in government and business?
BH: The thing that’s changed, obviously, in the country is that we’ve gone from a much more central common culture to balkanized sets of subcultures. I’m not going to make a comment on whether that’s good or bad, but there isn’t a common ground of what’s right and what’s wrong at that level. In Silicon Valley, there are people here who would tell you that “fake it ’til you make it” is the right thing, and then there are other people who are like, “you should be honest.” Those are two different things. And just so we’re clear: “Fake it ’til you make it” means lie until you get caught.
I tried to show a couple of things in the book that I thought were important. Toussaint used ethics as a way to elevate the culture, to [build] common trust, common understanding, common principles. He ran an army that was much more ethical than the British, French, or Spanish armies. This is a guy who was a slave, [but] who had great support from the white women in Haiti for his efforts because he had such high ethical standards for soldiers.
It was that ethical standard actually that led to the discipline that the army had that made it such an effective fighting force. I want to get that point across so that people would really understand the value of ethics beyond just needing to be a good person. Then the second part of it was, how do you actually implement that? How do you make it explicit? And how do you make it a priority even if it conflicts with your other priorities, which ethics often does. I wanted to get across that being ethical can be a strength.
What You Do Is Who You Are, published by Harper Collins, will be available October 29.