An Offer You Can't Refuse: Leadership Lessons From "The Godfather"

What does a real-life CEO have in common with the central figures of a fictitious Mafia crime family in The Godfather? According to Justin Moore, CEO and founder of Axcient, plenty. 

Moore is a serial entrepreneur, early-stage advisor, and angel investor. He’s currently at the helm of Axcient, a company he founded that provides backup, business continuity, and disaster recovery services to the small and mid-sized business (SMB) market. Right now, Axcient is protecting more than 2 billion files and applications for businesses across North America.

Moore also happens to think that The Godfather is “one of the best movies ever made” and had a chance to watch it again when the film was aired extensively last week to mark the 40th anniversary of its premiere. Though a decade had passed since the last time Moore watched it, his recent viewing offered an unexpected reward. This time he found the film rife with teaching moments for CEOs running a business today.

“I certainly don’t endorse crime or violence, and I’m not suggesting business should operate like the Mafia,” explains Moore, “but there are some universal themes in the movie I can relate to as a CEO.” Moore says The Godfather offers valuable lessons in community and team building, making tough decisions, and playing to win while not neglecting friends and family.

Here are five essential leadership lessons Moore distilled for Fast Company.

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.”

2. 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.

3. 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.”

4. Be decisive. 

Moore says that he, like most people who appreciate The Godfatherwatch 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.”

5. 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.

Think we missed any big leadership themes from The Godfather? Get thee to the comments and let us know. 

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86 Comments

  • Joe Walters

    Suggesting that there are no great lessons to be learned from "The Godfather" because organized crime is bad is like saying the message about diversity in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is invalid because reindeer can't really fly and the evidence supporting the existence of Santa Claus is inconclusive.

    Mario Puzo's masterwork is a study of power: how power is obtained, how power is used, how power is abused, how power is maintained and how power is transferred from individual to individual. The fact that Puzo used the milieu of a post-war gangster family is incidental. It could have just as easily been a western or sci-fi story.

    Primarily "The Godfather" compares and contrasts how Don Vito uses his power to protect his friends and family with Michael Corleone's use of power solely to build an empire. It is instructive that Don Vito's last words as he lay dying in his garden was "life is so beautiful" and Michael died alone, a broken and catatonic shell.

  • kayumochi

    What about "Be Sicilian?" Think that is stupid? Well, so is this blog post. But it got my page view and that is all that matters ... Ever been to southern Italy? It is like Africa. But northern Italy is not. Ever wonder why?

  • Debra Mathias

    Really? Have you guys ever heard take a little of what you hear or see and learn from it and let go of the rest.  I think some of the analysis was "dead" on.  1. Build a powerful network or community! perfect without it you can't do business. 2. Hold people accountable. Good, whether it's your staff or clients hold them accountable for what they say and do. In our business "courier" we are held accountable for every delivery we make. 3. Don't get emotional. You get emotional you lose. Fact. 4. Be decisive. You have to be or people will think you are wishy washy " a southern term not used up north". 5. Spend time with family. Very important! They are what keep you going, that is if you "like" your family. Just an observation.

  • Nelson

    WOW!  I can't wait for the next Fast Company article: "Leadership Lessons from the Bloods and Crips".

  • Ajay

    This is not the management WE need to practice. This is criminal philosophy followed by mafia where self interest and unlimited greed is paramount. We justify everything for our profit and create a atmosphere where war is not just for soldiers any more. War is for everyone, everywhere with everyone. But it
    shouldn't be. USA is perusing this strategy and selling this idea through its commercialized management education  everywhere. Ultimately they will pay the prize for this blunder and no one can help them irrespective of  bringing all the talented people from every corner of the world.

  • savekov

    but why making comparison between Mafia and Business? they have no differences between! Mafia = Business, HP = Business, IBM = Busines . Mafi+HP+IBM = Business. there are no differences between them ...they all trying to make money , thats what business does ? isnt it ? because someone somewhere says that if you kill for achiving your target it's not moral doesnt mean its not right! if you take look deeper I am prety sure IBM or HP is responsible for thousands of deads around the world I can bet on this , is this making them Mafia? No! They simple do Business , thats all ! and what Moral means? there is no definition of Moral ...moral is simply understand by people diferent way... for one is absoliutely normal and moral to kill ...for others is not... basic human nature is alowing killing , thats who you are , thats who I am and everyone.... Mafia is bad for poeople because someome says so , but what if I say IBM is bad ...where is the difference , there is none! Business is Business , nothing personal!

  • Christie Waller-O'Connor


    Ever since being introduced to the saga by my mother when I was in my teen years, The Godfather is hands down my all-time favorite movie.. Each time I immerse myself into the world of “The Corleone Family” it’s an exercise in strategic business analysis, personal value examination and self reflection.-as an aside { to all those reading this that are only capable of “literal interpretation” and possess an inability to make the analogical leap of connecting the relativity: I’ve never killed or ordered the death of an adversary}  Each time I’m guided through the brilliance of the film, I find myself gathering new insights and realizations not previously appreciated. With that said, I too most recently watched the Saga on AMC for the week-long, 40th Anniversary run. This time drawing out what I believe is the most crucial of all leadership principals to be gained from this epic film: in business, complacency and ignoring your employees career aspirations and personal agendas (even the employees whom you consider to be your most trusted advisors) can get you killed.
    “Maslow termed the highest-level in his pyramid hierarchy as growth needs (also known as being needs or B-needs). Growth needs do not stem from a lack of something, but rather from a desire to grow as a person.” It was through not recognizing a need for personal growth that Michael lost his most trusted caporegime, Tessio. As a result of focusing only on his own personal agenda, Michael was on the cusp of losing everything his family (i.e. company, team, battalion) had worked so painstakingly to achieve. To speak to some of the previous comments regarding the importance of a strategic succession plan, if not for The Don, Michael would’ve failed as a leader even before being handed the rein. Just as a new leader without adequate preparatory training for the role they’re given, Michael was destined for failure without the experience and wisdom of his Father being passed down to him.
    The scene with Vito & Michael in the garden exchanging small talk about family and Anthony’s ability to read the “funny papers” at age 4 was intermittently laid with the pivotal and final lesson in Michael’s succession: “whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting, he's the traitor.”  This lesson was the only time in the film that Vito placed such importance on a single key take-away to Michael that he reiterated it 4 times in a matter of minutes.
    “So, Barzini will move against you first. He'll set up a meeting with someone that you absolutely trust, guaranteeing your safety, and at that meeting you'll be assassinated."
    "I hope you don't mind the way I keep going over this Barzini business."
    "Oh, I want you to arrange to have a telephone man check all the calls going in and out of here, because it could be anyone …"
    "Listen, whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting, he's the traitor. Don't forget that."
    After a time of reflecting to dig down to the deeper meaning I now realize that putting the wants \ needs of those you depend on the most in business matters is often the easiest to overlook or forget. Then when you’re not expecting it, your trusted advisor has moved on to greener pastures, or worse, have laid a plan to kill your career -  let’s not forget that both Tessio and Clemenza met with Michael and basically told him that their needs weren’t being met. In the meeting Michael poignantly told them that the Corleone Family’s needs were going to be met before focusing on theirs. It’s very sad when this happens; nobody wins…
    As my leadership recently recommended to me, “ I suggest reading The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership, James C. Hunter

  • george hunt

    Machiavelli wrote in his book "The Prince" how leaders will become strong rulers.   He said that it is good for a strong leader to be both loved and feared by the people.  Of the two,though, fear is better sthan love because love is fickle and provides an insecure foundation compared to fear which is more constant and can be quickly instituted through armies and force.  (or words to that effect).  

  • Dave Kataky

    The most profound statement that stayed with me as a lesson is"Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer". I do not have a very negative view of the world. But in order to win in business, you must know what's the enemy/competition/potential competion up to. Also Sonny's temper was very deliberately exploited so that he could be assassinated. In al walks of life I learned that thinking is a higher level than reacting. In order words, we can have our emotions as long as our emotions don't have us.

  • Michael Martel

     As with anything there are
    lessons to be learned from organized crime.  One thing that
    comes to mind that isn't readily apparent is the idea that he big
    score isn’t the big score.

    In the movies you see the junior mobsters going from store to
    store collecting the protection money each day.  You might ask
    yourself, “why didn’t they just clean out the store and be done
    with it?”  The reason is that would not be the big score. 
    The big score is the steady stream of money coming in everyday. 
    By only taking a little many times over, they collected far more than
    going for the one big payday.

    This is called continuity in the business world.  Continuity
    is where the big money is made online now.  Paid newsletters,
    coaching groups, members only websites provide constant streams of
    income that rapidly add up to big money.  Don’t push for a
    single big purchase.  Build a continuity feature for your
    business.

  • Bill Black

    Make sure your team knows what the goal is

     

    Vito's ultimate goal was to go legit and Michael was the
    vehicle for that goal.  But he didn't
    communicate that goal to the family.  So,
    when he was shot, Sonny and Tom agreed to let Michael do the hit, which
    destroyed any hope of Vito achieving the goal. 
    In fact, things went backwards to the point that Michael ends up killing
    his own brother.
     

  • Bob Leonne

    Discipline and patience is the bridge to success - and also having unaccountable money like a mafia boss. Every business and life has its own circumstances. Standardising business success is a fools path when circumstances are not first considered.

  • carlos

    In reading comments of the naysayers, I am reminded of the reunion conversation between Kate and Michael that took place in the park while she was walking children from school.   Michael, " My father is no different from any other powerful man or politician".  Kate,'Politicians don't kill people".  Michael," now who's being naive"? 

  • Claudiaruiz

    This article is a shame! I am a victim of a car bomb that killed 11 police men and 3 civilians in Colombia by the Medellin Cartel of Pablo Escobar. THERE IS NOTHING, listen to me, nothing to admire of these criminals. My country can't have peace because of the bussiness of illegal drugs and even worse, because many leaders only think about their own prosperity and not the prosperity of all. "Don't get emotional"? Ah, that is why United States is not the same country it used to be...