An Offer You Can’t Refuse: Leadership Lessons From “The Godfather”

Posted On April 26, 2012

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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. 


When Fredo says “Mike! You do not come to Las Vegas and talk to a man like Moe Greene like that!
Sometimes, the smaller and newer players in the market place get awed by the old horses like Moe Green. At times, may be rightly so.

(Backdrop: Moe Greene (the old established player to Michael the Challenger) 
“Sonofab*tch! Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Greene! I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!

Never rest on old laurels, there is a hungry pack of new entrepreneurs and younger/ smaller companies ready to topple you. Dont underestimate what they can do today.

Michael to Fredo: “Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever” – When you are smaller, more passionate – You are clannish, taking pride in of your association with your company because there is that human connection.
 Bigger organizations find it difficult to command such loyalty.

Contrast this to the later parts of Godfather where Michael is less emotional and more business like unlike Vincent (Michael’s nephew from Sonny). 

Business and Leaders must hire young guns for some of traits that they themselves had in their early years. (Although Vincent is more impulsive just like Sonny and unlike Michael). 

There are many to take away. This is a subject I can work on for months 🙂

  • Tom Hagen – DIVERSITY: He is supposedly of Irish origin and not Italian

CSR: We all know what goes into a lot of CSR activities. Image building PR exercise and paying for your sins. Michael in Godfather 3 “

Italian-Americans “must learn from the philanthropists like the Rockefellers – first you rob everybody, then you give to the poor 


Frank Deluca Yesterday 11:11 PM

All great lessons but I can’t believe you missed one of THE most important lessons.. ” Keep your friends close.. and your enemies closer.. ” 

Frank Deluca, a true Sicilian 


Bruce Yesterday 09:53 PM

To Bonasera  the Undertaker:  Then your enemies will become my enemies…and then they will fear you.
I am also put off a bit by the analogies drawn to the business world  and i give some credence to the author however distasteful it is to equate a mob film with legitimate business.  I believe some of the central tenets of the movie can be seen across many dealings and relationships in life and not just business.  But that is what makes the movie great. BTW It was really Michael who cleaned house and wound up being much more ruthless than Vito. Vito would have been content to to be more like Don Fanucci (who he made the original offer that couldnt be refused) and just “dip his beak a little” as long as violence was kept to a minimum./ Vito valued family more than Michael as Fredo and Connies husband will attest


sthita sahu 20 minutes ago in reply to Bruce

Fredo may have gotten a raw deal, but Connie’s husband had it coming


Steve Tedesco Yesterday 09:34 PM

I think he missed one of the bestbusiness lessons of the movie:
” Keep your friends close but your enemies closer”


BSwift Yesterday 09:33 PM

What, nobody’s going to mention: “Never tell anyone outside the Family what you are thinking again”!?


raymond garbrah Yesterday 09:11 PM

The Godfather is a great book, its so full of lessons. The Don placed a high premium on friends & family, he advised Fontane to have ‘a wall of friends (and family)’. In the ends it all comes down to family and friends, doesn’t it?


SpencerM Yesterday 06:30 PM

I think this article may have confused “family” with “Family.” One point states that Don Corleone is so ruthless that he kills his own family. Since the article appears to primarily reference Vito Corleone’s wisdom, this statement may not be 100% accurate. I don’t recall Don Corleone killing (or ordering the killing of) any blood relative. True, a hit was ordered on Carlo Rizzi, Connie Corleone’s husband, however this hit was ordered by Michael Corleone, before Michael had secured the title of Don. It is also true that Don Michael Corleone ordered a hit on his brother, Fredo, but this execution happened many years after the death of Don Vito Corleone.

A passage from the novel in which Tom Hagen recalls a lesson from Vito Corleone right before meeting with Jack Woltz has always struck me as very sound business advice. “Don’t get angry. Don’t make threats. Reason with people.” Later in the story we learn that the Don considers the public display of anger the most dangerous type of exposure. Even in an adversarial situation, expressing negative emotions serves no useful purpose.


Janis Raye Yesterday 06:03 PM

This ground has been covered really well in a book entitled “The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies,” by Kevin Coupe and Michael Sansolo. They suggest that this movie covers the topics of Ethics and Planning, as well as Leadership. They actually do this for 60 movies, and they agree that The Godfather has more business lessons in it than just about any other film.


Wendy Truth Yesterday 05:47 PM

Uh hello people – my grandmother always said that fiction was closer to reality than we liked to admit.  While this is just a movie the parallels to life are inescapable – look at the cronism of the Obama white house – taking money from productive profitable companies to give it to companies that are in a swamp.  Talk about gangster behaviour.  Those who kiss the ring of the current occupant of the White House are rewarded with payoffs.

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zukerberg did not get where they are without some of the same principals that Moore spoke about.  Fiercely competitive, team builders, and visionaries.  


Art Yesterday 05:21 PM

You forgot one voiced by Tom Hagen, when the movie director refuses to give Johnny Fontaine the lead role. Tom insists on being take to the airport and says, “Mr. Corleone insists on hearing bad news immediately.” Lesson: Be vigilant for customer service problems that crop up for your company and address/confront them immediately, correct them to your customers’ satisfaction as quickly as possible, and you’ll win over your customers–without having to behead a horse.
And those of you boneheads making remarks about the mafia/gangster source of these lessons, lighten up willya? Are you bereft of ironic humor?


anthony Yesterday 05:11 PM

..thats clever work to derive business leadership qualities from a Mafia trade…


Bob E Sherman Yesterday 05:05 PM

Business is easier without government interference and a few judges in your pocket.


Christoph Rau Yesterday 04:42 PM

john betancourt 
I like your comment, but if you use it you should get your Latin straight : Cato said “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” 😉


john betancourt Yesterday 05:02 PM in reply to Christoph Rau

You think too much of me, kid. I am not that clever.


Joe Ruiz Yesterday 04:02 PM

Interesting comments in a speculative kind of way. However, this story was an attempt at a morality tale (probably not) shoehorned into a gangster movie and as good as the movie was, and as much I enjoy Coppola’s work and the subsequent sequels (I’ll admit, this is one of my favorite all-time movies), this is a movie after all, and these are gangsters.  In the real world crime organizations are brutal and violent and they kill both innocent and guilty alike without a whole lot philosophical chatter or much attention to concepts of trust and loyalty.  The law of omerta doesn’t engender loyalty.  It requires it on pain of death.  If you are not in, you are out.  There is no human resource person to meet with.  Peter Drucker wouldn’t get a seat at that table and “The Art of War” is by the way, in the end about waging actual war, not running your company.  Don Corleone, gentle old soul that he was, used violence, murder and blackmail to care care of his “family”.  The fact that the good Don refused to sell drugs only made him an an odd duck in the world of criminal enterprise.  It also made him more palatable as a character in the story.  After all, what kind of hero would sell drugs to children?
I’m sure someone will tell me lighten up, it’s only a movie, but the using the “Godfather” as a basis for leadership lessons strikes me as somewhat twisted and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Like everyone else who loves this movie, I cheered for Michael as he rose from the ashes to avenge his father and save his family, but I don’t think I’d want to lead my company like him or work for someone like him for that matter.
In fact, many of the same attitudes exemplified in this film are the very same things that ruin great companies: secrecy, cronyism, nepotism, plotting and destroying dissent, eliminating percieved and real enemies with quick and destructive action. And the idea that doing business is like gang warfare is a bit out there. I’ve been pretty successful without “taking anyone out”. 
The key to having a successful business is integrity, hard work that delivers on it’s promise and building great relationships with your clients, employees and vendors, not ruthless management and manipulation of your resources.
I’m sure that the one thing no one ever wants to hear is the infamous
phrase,”sorry, it’s not personal, it’s only business”, and having to say
it to someone is not a good feeling either.
While this article is clever and well written, it trivializes some real issues of trust and management in American business today. 


LydiaDishman Yesterday 04:29 PM in reply to Joe Ruiz

Dear Joe:

First, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment thoughtfully. I am not going to tell you, or anyone else, to lighten up but I would like to point out again that Justin Moore of Axcient, who is the source I quoted in this article said this in the introduction:
“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.” 


debbie popiel Yesterday 03:24 PM

“Mikey, why don’t you tell that nice girl you love her?”~Clemenza. Express your true feelings. Don’t hold back. If you love something say it. If you hate it, offer a solution.  I think it’s important to tell the people in your life how you feel about them. Life is short and people need to know the truth, especially if you love them.  As a leader your feelings make you more real to those around you.


raj dwivedi Yesterday 03:11 PM

While there are some valid points that you reference to business leadership (like being decisive), it’s a complete miss to equate the moronic character of this mob boss to effective business leadership (unless of course you run a criminal enterprise as a business).  The author misses that some of the basic and necessary traits of effective leadership are lacking in the selfish mob boss model.  Traits like unselfishness, exercising good judgment, being consistent, dependable, having vast amounts of knowledge, courage, integrity, enthusiasm, endurance, loyalty to subordinates and exercising tact are what attract capital, customers, employees and suppliers.   The mob boss (or CEO) as selfish, ruthless leader is why we have crony capitalism, ineffective government, slow to non-existent economic growth, an inefficient education and health care system, wide-spread unemployment, widening gaps between CEO and executive pay vs average employee pay, out of control entitlement spending and expectations (here and in Europe), and the opposite of what an effective leader would want to portray to stakeholders in a business or any other organization.   Real leadership is hard and serious business.  Get serious about your leadership expectations.

  • The Godfather reminds me of the need for trustworthy employees.

In the beginning of the film, Vito Corleone trusts Tom Hagen to act on his behalf in Los Angeles. Once Hagen begins to speak with movie producer, Jack Woltz, he states that he speaks with the full authority of Don Corleone. 

This emphasizes, the need for competent to employees to lead in your stead.  Even at a start up, you won’t be in the office to handle every problem.  That’s when you’ll truly need competent and trustworthy employees.


john betancourt Yesterday 02:54 PM

I think to me, the main thing is that all of the grand themes of classical literature are contained in this dark and shadowy tale. But a review of them exposes a fundamental flaw in the tale.

The BIG Themes
First off, of course it is the tale of A Great Journey and survival

Really the story of immigration to the US and how in the rat-hole that was the lower eastside folks fought it out to determine who would be on top. Basically, they learned about life on the “street,” in the “hood,” and this gave them street cred. Sooner or later, if someone crosses a line, you have to be man enough to take things into your own hands and “badda bing” you get “blood all over your nice Ivy league suit.” This is an important lesson in the sense that fundamentally it says that the world is always teetering on savagery and we all have to keep our game up in order to survey the journey. Yes, we have to be clever like Odysseus, but there is more, in the end, we have to be savage and maintain a kind of blood lust in order to survive.

Loss of Innocence
Painful though it may be the ritual of becoming a man is the total destruction of your enemy. That is what Michael realizes, “Pop will never be safe as long as Solazzo is alive.” Entirely reminiscent of Cato’s  dictum that “Carthago delenda est.” In other words, becoming a man is realizing that you can not make peace with your enemies. That there will be no Kumbaya moments.

The Noble Sacrifice
Clearly, like God the Father giving up his Son for the sins of humanity, Don Vito, gives up Michael. Michael is the new Jesus. He is sacrificed so that there will be order in the world. In this one character, we have both Satan and Jesus, Ying and Yang, the Good and the Bad, Hero and Anti-Hero. Michael must leave the nice sunny side of life, and enter this nether world of shadows and dubious characters.

The Great Battle
Look, we all want to avoid it, but you can not achieve great things with out great battles. During the War it sucks, but only the strong will survive and all those tricks you learned on the street, all the advice from your guru, all the books and articles, sure they help, but you better have the stuff or you’re going down.

 The Smaller But Equally Important
Love & Friendship are good, but they do not last. If you rely on this too much you will be disappointed. See Tessio (Can you help me out for ol’ times sake Tom? Sorry, Sally, I can’t) In other words, there is no such thing as friends. There are allies and enemies. You got that.

Revenge: Unlike (most of the time in business), a lot of motivation in the Godfather for things is revenge. Sometimes revenge is transformed into a more positive force as it is in Tom Haden mind when he talks about “it’s just business.” Well, if it were just business, then there was really no need for Michael to kill Fredo. Fredo was done. In real business if you get obsessed with BS like that you become petty and you lose your way.

Which leads to the Next Theme which is a Fall From Grace: I think once Michael kills Fredo (and by the way it is not for revenge, he is just an Ivy Leaguer and he has be thorough and systematic like a terminator). It actually is what makes a lot of Ivy Leaguers useless in business. Well, this is Michael’s biggest mistake. At this point the he is committing fratricide and the Erinyes are waiting.

Missing from Coppola’s opus are: The Capriciousness of Fate (let’s face it stuff happens);

More importantly, the Big Mystery which drives most of us or at least should drive us, rather than Revenge (Coppola had to pick one). Business people should be interested in solving hard problems and helping the world become a better place through that process. So you could say that the Godfather at its core is flawed because of this because it focuses on the wrong fundamental motivation. Hey, if your not in business to solve someone’s problems you have no business.


Diana Yesterday 02:47 PM

One nuance on family missing here: building a company is building a family. You’re going to spend the vast majority of the day with your team, so you must love them, be loyal to them, and grow with them– they are your family away from family. A company that satisfies the emotional needs of your people builds the kind of loyalty and trust integral to retaining the hearts as well as minds of the best and brightest. 


Tony Spano Yesterday 02:44 PM

Leave the gun, take the cannoli.  Don’t be afraid to leave things behind even if they worked in the past and embrace good luck if it falls in your lap.


Frank Pentangeli Yesterday 02:41 PM

All my life I kept trying to go up in society.
Where everything higher up was legal. But the higher I go, the crookeder it
becomes. Where the hell does it end?”


Denise King Yesterday 02:38 PM

I think this is Michael Corleone, Godfather II:
There are many things my father taught me here in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.You’d better know your competition better than you know your customers, suppliers and business associates!


Frank Pentangeli Yesterday 02:34 PM

Make them trust you then make your move against them.  

“Don’t be afraid, Carlo. Come on, you think I’d make my sister a widow? I’m Godfather to your son.”

Two minutes later he strangled in the front seat of a car for betraying Sonny.

The lesson:  Get rid of your enemies no matter what the cost.


Griselda Avila Yesterday 02:17 PM

Oh C’mon!!! The movie talks about a leader… a bad or a good guy?? It doesn’t matter, we are talking about what worked for this character… Do not project yourself and make it personal. Take what is good and leave what is bad… One of the better phrases for me at The godfather (my favorite movie ever!): “It is better to have friends than to have money” – 


Dlaw Yesterday 02:04 PM

Of course American Capitalism sees itself in the timeless infamy of gangsterism. Neat. 
And we wonder why we’re in crisis. 


Pawel Yesterday 01:35 PM

It is interesting to me that when people talk about “leadership” these days, they invariably choose sociopathic behavior as an example of “leadership.”

What could be less like true leadership than a mobster?

But then, in our capitalist society where we raise sociopaths like Trump or Branson or Jobs to the status of icons, I guess it is no surprise.

But a warning, when you follow in the footsteps of these sociopaths you destroy the very thing that makes our country great: Our democracy.

Because a democracy is intended to curb the behavior of sociopaths. It is intended to box them in and contain the effects of their self-serving, power-aggrandizing ways.

Only when non-sociopaths come together in democratic institutions to stand up against the sociopaths who indeed, tend to strive for leadership positions (rightly so, if they want to), do we make sure all of us (sociopaths included) have freedom.

My advice, let’s stop spreading – and especially believing – such destructive propaganda such as this.


tlane Yesterday 01:24 PM

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”  Although this line appears in The Godfather, its wisdom has been recognized by both Sun-tzu and Machiavelli, I believe its applies to the business world in that it is wise to be involved in industry groups and to be aware of best practices as employed by one’s competition.  Unless one rationalizes industrial espionage (which I don’t recommend), it means develop relationships with others in the industry, even if they are direct competitors.


Frank Marino Yesterday 01:16 PM

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”  Here Don Corleone coaches Michael in the garden before he dies of a heart attack, and is expressing his value toward friendship and loyalty (in personal and customer relations) as well as a healthy paranoia toward his enemies or competition.


Diane Salafia Yesterday 01:11 PM

Leave the gun . . . take the Cannolis.  Even at this level, it is important to prioritize.


Denise King Yesterday 02:39 PM in reply to Diane Salafia

LOL, yes Diane,  you’re right!!! Priorities mean *everything*!


Marilyn Messenger Yesterday 01:10 PM

Also “Stay close to your friends, stay closer to your enemies!”


Matt Mosbacher Yesterday 01:02 PM

Grooming/training a successor?  

One of the central themes in the film is the notion of succession, grooming and selecting the next Godfather, Michael Corleone.  Vito provided Michael the space and freedom to forge his own path and identity which ultimately became the path and identity of the family (for better or worse).  While others in the family did not see the core leadership potential latent within Michael, Vito had identified him as his successor long before anyone else in the family (including Michael) really took him seriously as a leader.   By believing in, and trusting, your top potential leaders within your organization and providing a broad platform for growth, you foster capable and strong people to pass the baton to when your time is done.  


Oliver Neto Yesterday 12:49 PM

Don Corleone: I knew Santino was going to have to go through all this and Fredo… well, Fredo was… But I, I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. That’s my life, I don’t apologize for that. But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something. 
Michael: Another pezzonovante. 
Don Corleone: Well, there wasn’t enough time, Michael. There just wasn’t enough time. 
– Don Vito Corleone reflecting sadly on the fact that his son won’t become an upstanding citizen offering a public service; that instead, he will waste his life in business. Crucial point in the trilogy – it sets Michael on to the path of destruction which sees him lose his entire family for the sake of ‘business’, and cinema’s greatest attack on the ideology of anarcho-capitalism.



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