Nothing succeeds like success, but seriously, would you be worried if your boss was thinking of modelling her management style on Genghis Khan? Then you might want to hide her copy of the latest book by venture capitalist Ben Horowitz. The 12th century Mongol ruler and scourge of the Steppes is one of the models he holds up for the enlightened modern executive. This makes, ‘What you do is Who you are,’ sound like a gimmick, but rest assured, it has a serious intent. Horowitz, co-founder of one of Silicon Valley’s best-known venture capital firms, is reliably thoughtful, and his front row seat watching the next generation of world-class companies struggling to be born, makes his a useful perspective. Horowitz’s point is that historical success stories of lone individuals overcoming the odds provide valuable clues for how to shape a winning business culture, particularly for the next heroic start-up. Genghis Khan, in case you were wondering, favoured talent over lineage when promoting his generals, and assimilated defeated troops into his own army thereby exhibiting a laudable preference for meritocracy and inclusiveness.

Still, ‘Choose your heroes wisely’—If Horowitz only half succeeds, it is because historical parallels drawn mainly from the military don’t map easily on to the day-to-day concerns of modern business. No surprise there. But his passion for history and a wealth of first-hand observations still enable him to deliver an engaging blend of anecdote and advice from the front lines of the tech industry. Top of his list of managerial role models is Toussaint Louverture, who led a successful 18th century slave revolt that ejected the French rulers from what is now Haiti. Horowitz extracts seven lessons in culture formulation from Louverture’s story—a somewhat painful process that turns an inspiring piece of liberation history into a management checklist. They include “Create shocking rules” (Louverture forbade his officers to have concubines, setting a high standard for moral probity), “Dress for success” (he used elaborate military uniforms to instil a sense of order in his ragtag army) and “Make ethics explicit” (by forbidding pillage). Invoking the power of individuals to shape history at important turning points makes the book feel like a new twist on that old favourite of business publishing: the hero narrative. There is always a market for books that play to the egos of chief executives – and would-be chief executives – by feeding the belief that the world is formless clay, waiting to be moulded by their genius. Start-up founders, who work from a blank sheet of paper, are closer to that ideal than most. The idea that the elusive essence of a particular culture can be distilled for the benefit of future generations of managers is another trope of the genre. Pinning down the reasons why a company’s culture has evolved the way it has and what actions managers can take to steer it in a different direction are notoriously difficult challenges. Abstracting lessons from unrelated fields and applying them to modern businesses inevitably results in oversimplification. Trying to separate the message from the context also makes an important point about culture: it is actually all about context—and people.

Louverture’s rise and fall is both inspiring and dispiriting (he was betrayed by his second-in-command, put on a ship to France and imprisoned until his death: it turns out that his followers were not quite ready for his brand of enlightened leadership). Boiling that complex human story down to a set of management lessons robs it of vitality. Despite the challenges Horowitz sets himself with the book’s premise, he is saved by an awareness of limitations of simplistic management bromides. He is a former chief executive himself, and one half of the duo behind Andreessen Horowitz, with seats on the boards of nearly 20 start-ups. The entrepreneurs he writes about from experience are beset by messy reality and all too prone to error. The perfect culture is an inspiration that can never be fully achieved—but does not mean it is not worth consciously setting out some guideposts. Silicon Valley’s start-ups have a rare opportunity to build a new culture from scratch. But miss one important component in the construction, and the whole edifice could be doomed. Horowitz credits Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick with having consciously set out to create the ultimate competitive culture. But, as he also points out, Kalanick forgot a key ingredient: to make the ethical guardrails explicit. That oversight eventually cost him his company. Sometimes a management checklist can really come in handy!