With great fanfare, The Sopranos, ended—this TV series ran for eight years, won awards, topped the ratings, and assumed iconic status among Mafia buffs. No one, it seems, was satisfied with the lack of closure afforded by the final episode (see for instance, the New York Times). My wife and I just returned from 10 days of hiking in the lake country of Northern Italy, where I had the pleasure of rereading Mario Puzo’s Godfather. The book is an engaging and sympathetic portrayal of a Mafia boss. Between the book and the TV series we see two tragic figures, one smart (Michael Corleone) and the other not-so-smart (Tony Soprano) who try to lead their organizations forward amidst extraordinary risks. Just as we now have Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, it would not be surprising to see books on leadership lessons drawn from the cosa nostra—popular culture romanticizes the underworld in predictable ways; business culture can too. But get a grip, these people are thugs; they might afford spicy entertainment but don’t deserve to be exemplars.

At the very heart of the underworld is a detachment from the society in which it resides, while participating in that society. Tony Soprano is the part owner of three businesses, has a wife and two children, and a nice home in the New Jersey suburbs. It is not clear that his family is clear on how he really earns a salary. In reality, he is living a lie.

This is a core issue in The Godfather too. One of the pivotal moments occurs when Michael Corleone, the youngest son of the Godfather, agrees to assassinate two opponents. Michael’s hotheaded older brother, Sonny, accuses him of reacting emotionally to an attempted murder of his father. Michael replies, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” Words like these are used so universally in business today as to merit the status of a mega-cliché. Typically, the speaker will use them to justify a separation of one’s personal values and practices from those of an organization, market, or society. My acquaintance, Joel Podolny, the Dean of Yale’s School of Management, has argued that this erodes the very basis of professionalism. I also wonder how healthy it is for the individual to toggle between two different identities, one for work and the other for the rest of one’s life.

We know that good leadership is about connecting people in positive ways. Successful leaders integrate well with their communities and across their personal and professional lives. From this perspective, it pays to think critically about the leadership icons in popular culture and business practice.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 06/13/2007 08:00:19 AM