Leadership Lessons From “The Godfather”

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012


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 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.”

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.

BY LYDIA DISHMAN of Fast Company

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