Godfather Leadership

Black and white picture of Godfather Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) seated with consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) whispering in his ear. Both wearing tuxedoes, Corleone raises his index finger.

In “An Offer You Can’t Refuse: Leadership Lessons From The Godfather author Lydia Dishman interviews Justin Moore, CEO and founder of Axcient regarding demonstrations of leadership in the legendary motion picture. Moore explains, of course, that he isn’t suggesting violent and criminal behavior and that “business should not operate like the Mafia” but there are however many universal themes that are common to the Godfather and the CEO.

The five main points Dishman draws out of Moore parallel many of the things we’ve learned over the past months with MOR. There are obvious dark spins on leadership as Vito Corleone has his business strategies carried out but on a macro level much of it informs us on the other side of the law. I do take some issue or see the need to expand on Moore’s points given my experiences of the last few years at the University and as a MOR student.

Here are Moore’s points with my thoughts included:

  1. Build a powerful community.

Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. ~Vito Corleone

Uttered in the iconic rasp of Marlon Brando, the words of Vito Corleone illustrate how he creates a loyal community among those he has helped. Moore says, “By granting these favors and helping people with their problems, Vito Corleone is building a network of influence–relationships that may or may not deliver a specific or quantifiable return, but all which serve to strengthen his power base and which have the potential to be reciprocal in the long run.”

Moore says building strategic partnerships enables companies to work through challenging markets and fast-track overall success. “As a CEO, I see it as part of my job to be a super connector, networking with the technology and investment community without an expectation of reciprocation. Partnerships forged through time, trust, and mutual benefit–such as those Axcient has built with HP, Ingram-Micro, and a vast network of service providers and resellers–are the types of community relationships that bring about the greatest returns.”

Fostering relationships, networking and community have been well demonstrated in our MOR activities, an especially concrete example being the simulation we worked through at Michigan. The “expectation of reciprocation” is a significantly different matter in the Godfather. Coercion on the part of Corleone to receive reciprocation exclusively on his terms is quite different than relying on a mutually created relationship based on trust. I would equate Corleone’s methods to be similar to the “sandwich” strategy in our simulation where pressure was applied to get the desired outcome regardless of the state of or investment in the relationship. However, unlike our experience, Corleone’s sandwich would be very likely be successful and possibly painful for personal between the slices.

Never leave a Dean’s Office with the Canolli and Gun question on your mind. Enough said.

  1. Hold people accountable.

What’s the matter with you? I think your brain is going soft. ~Vito Corleone

The Godfather reminds us of the importance of being tough when necessary. “As soon as Vito Corleone allowed a few moments of weakness to be seen by his enemy, they attempted to assassinate him. And it was largely because of failures of his team,” Moore observes.

“In business, accountability isn’t achieved by a murderous rampage. But the lesson is this–to be successful in business you have to be tough, and you have to be extremely focused on hitting goals and getting results,“ says Moore. That doesn’t mean patience and understanding don’t have a place, he says, but ongoing tolerance of low-performing people or products just eats away at the success of the entire company. “You are ultimately responsible for all of your employees and shareholders, and that requires tough and swift decisions.

Many of the ideas from our readings on accountability prior to our fourth session contradict this last quote. In these readings we learned accountability often works better when there’s not a perception of a leader’s “ultimate responsibility” but a shared responsibility amongst all people across the organization. Metrics, numbers, targets, etc. are critical as they tangibly represent a shared goal or destination where all members recognize their contribution to and responsibility for. I think Vito does have it right here, when someone’s “brain is going soft” there’s not a full sharing of the responsibility required to be truly accountable to the organization.

  1. Don’t get emotional.

It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business. ~Michael Corleone

“Many people don’t like to talk about the fact that in business, there are winners and losers. When Sonny Corleone reacts impulsively and emotionally, he gets taken out. In business, if you don’t take the opportunity to out-sell, out-bid, or out-market your competitor, they’ll take you out. I’m not suggesting doing anything outside the boundaries of morality or rightness–simply pointing out that when people make emotional decisions, they start making bad decisions. To lead successfully, you have to take your emotion and ego out of the equation.”

Likewise, Moore says it’s important to play to win. In business, that translates to knowing the competition and always staying at least one step ahead. “Operate your business with integrity and have respect for competition, but you also need to seize opportunities to eliminate your competition and win.”

Emotional Intelligence, the EQ or EI, that we explored in Nebraska plays a role in everything a leader does. I would differ with Moore in that every decision is an emotional decision. The skilled leader has a full knowledge of his/herself and can parse the factors in the decision making process. The leader’s EQ/EI moves into the social realm as the leader operates the “business with integrity.” Here the awareness and management of those external conduct traits are in full play.

  1. Be decisive.

Moore says that he, like most people who appreciate The Godfather, watch the movie with a combination of shock and respect. “Shock because he is so ruthless that he kills his own family member, but respect for the fact that Don Corleone knows exactly what he wants, executes decisively, and commands respect through unwavering leadership.”

While you don’t have to kill anyone to prove a point, as soon as you know what choice to make, move forward. “Know who on your team is making the right choices, and trust them to take decisive action as well. Hesitation too often leads to missed opportunities.”

As I thought about this point it strongly became apparent to me that decisiveness, successful decisiveness that is, is the result of this whole quest for improving our leadership skills. A decisive action really can’t take place without processing everything we’ve been learning in our MOR experiences. Of course a mature leader does this more intuitively than us newbies. Even I, if I put my mind and effort towards a situation, can act decisively within my current role.

  1. Spend time with your family.

Do you spend time with your family? Because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man. ~Vito Corleone

Moore isn’t endorsing 1940s machismo, but he is decrying 100-hour workweeks that many entrepreneurs fall prey to in hot pursuit of the next big thing. Though he’s been dedicated like that in the past, Moore finds it’s not sustainable in the long run.

“A leader can’t be successful in creative problem-solving and making excellent decisions unless that person is connected to people and passions outside of work. I find that it’s often time with family and friends that gives me the perspective I need to build the relationships and make the decisive actions required for continued success in business,” says Moore.

I would take Moore’s thought one step further; I find that if I’m not feeling good about something in my home life I lose focus and effectiveness in my work life. Realizing I didn’t give my kid a hug before dropping him off at school ends up bugging me all day. A down swing in a relationship, the loss of a loved one, a financial pinch, and so many other situations can take a toll on my ability to lead. I need to work at both aspects of my life with equal effort.

It’s often little things that help so much in my total life. Here a few examples that work at:

  • Walk out of the office at 5p unless it’s an absolute necessity.
  • Rather than read the news on my phone at breakfast we now practice my son’s spelling words for the week.
  • Attempt to practice self-awareness at all times.
  • Share the evening cooking as much as possible (when we’re not in extracurricular shuttle mode with the kid).

Work/Life balance is critical but too often are empty words in the work world. I am grateful that it feels that the higher education sphere is better at this balance than the private sector. Certainly it’s an improvement from my ten years in the private sector. Hopefully it stays that way.

(via An Offer You Can’t Refuse: Leadership Lessons From “The Godfather” | Fast Company)

Finally one thought came to mind when looking at the picture of Brando and DuVall – it has to do with appearance and impression. The image of a “secret” being whispered into the “leader’s” ear has always been something that makes me uneasy. It sets a tone that lacks transparency, in face-to-face meetings or even during public events. I’ve been on the bandstand hiding behind my bass or behind a camera for well over 500 events; a position where I’m thought of and treated like wallpaper. It’s provided me an anonymous and fascinating view of interactions both formal and informal, overt and covert. My “research sample” has representation by leaders from multiple universities, governors, congressmen/women, clergy and business leaders. I’ve seen plenty of examples that are reminiscent of the Brando-DuVall picture and many other scenarios play out right in front of me. (don’t ask about wedding party behavior on the dance floor – NSFW) After awhile one gets quite adept at assessing the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” When I say bad, for a few, it means an orange jumpsuit sort of bad. Anybody that knows Illinois can guess at who some of those people may be.

Together we have learned that we are always on stage as leaders. Do we want to be compared to Brando?