What can a movie about mafia bosses and gangsters teach us about leadership?  If you look closely at the main characters in The Godfather – Don Vito Corleone and his son, Michael Corleone, you can learn a lot about leadership principles, both the good and the bad.

The Positive Lessons

Transactional Leadership Can Work.  Transactional leadership involves an exchange – money for work, one favor for another.  Throughout The Godfather transactional leadership is on full display.  The famous line, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” suggests that everyone has a price (or a pressure point).  Wise leaders, however, make sure that transactions are fair to all parties to avoid resentment later.

Relationships Matter.  The Godfather is full of illustrations of the power of relational leadership.  In fact, it is the power of familial relationships that makes the mafia an effective organization (realize I said “effective,” not ethical – more on ethics later).  In fact, the very term “Godfather,” suggests that an individual can have a family tie despite not actually being a blood relative.  Good leaders work hard to develop strong relationships with followers.

Successful Leaders are Strategic. Much of the movie depicts the strategies that Don Corleone and his advisors use to manage their operations, deal with competition from other mafia families, and overcome setbacks.  Thinking ahead, having contingency plans, being resilient, are all important elements of effective leadership.

The Best Leaders Develop Leadership Capacity in Others.  Much of the latter portion of the Godfather movie depicts the development of Michael Corleone from an “outsider” in the family “business,” to the eventual leader and successor to his father, Don Corleone.  The movie illustrates the emergence of Michael as a leader (e.g., the scene in the hospital where he takes charge to protect his father from assassins), and the Don’s development of Michael’s leadership through his, and his trusted advisor, Tom Hagen’s, mentoring of Michael.

The Negative Lessons

Character Matters.  Despite the fact that Don Vito Corleone is the “hero” of the film, and an effective leader of a successful mafia family, he is a criminal, of poor moral character.  There is a distinction between being an “effective” leader and being a “good” and ethical leader, and the difference is character.  Ethical leaders promote the common good. The mafia operations, as depicted in The Godfather, exploit people, and leave a path of victims in their wake.  Although Vito Corleone may have some admirable qualities and financial success, he is, in the end, a criminal, and by definition, a “bad” leader.

Power Can Corrupt.  Perhaps the clearest theme in The Godfather film, which is better depicted in Godfather II, is the process by which a hard-working and law-abiding Vito Corleone, gains power and money, and, through intimidation and later murder, becomes a powerful head of a crime family.  Throughout the film, we see Vito rationalize his criminal behavior (“it’s only business,” “the authorities are corrupt”).  Good leaders need to work hard to avoid the temptations of power.

Reference

Warner, Nicholas, & Riggio, Ronald E.  (2012).  Italian-American leadership in Hollywood films: Images and realities.  Leadership, 8(3), 211-227.

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