Saturday, November 14, 2009

Leadership lessons from 'The Godfather'

The chopped-off horse’s head layin’ in splendorous silk sheets, “Sleeps with the fishes”, even Michael Corleone’s public kiss of his brother, Fredo, to let him know he’s going to have him ‘wacked’ … all these are clichés from ‘The Godfather’ which have burrowed their way deeper into our pop culture than anything outside of Robert Duvall’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ soliloquy re the pleasing aroma a bit of napalm can provide at day’s dawning.

As clichés go, these are pretty damn good. Great as the movies are, a re-reading of Mario Puzo’s original is well worth it. There are whole chunks of the book – just as rich in narrative as what you've seen in the films – still untouched. Ever wondered, for example, what happened to Lucy Mancini [right] after Sonny bought it on the Causeway?

What the book, due to its format, explores in more depth are lessons for what it is to be a leader of men. I perceive Puzo’s book really as a character study on what it is to be a man and the meaning of code to defining character regardless of morality. Whoa … heavy!

Rather than pontificate pedantically, let me offer instead what I purport are the key lessons from ‘The Godfather’ (primarily the book) on how to be a leader of men:

1.) “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”

This is probably the most well-known lesson from ‘The Godfather’ and is fairly obvious. Puzo attributes this trait to the Sicilian character, but really it’s a kind of functional duplicity which can be seen in all walks of life since Judas [smoochin' left] asked his Narzarene buddy not to bogart the matzoh despite bringin’ some fine wine for their dinner.

2.) Loyalty trumps smarts – The lesson of Clemenza v. Tessio

Movie & book's beginning both center on marriage day of Connie Corleone, only daughter of Vito (a.k.a. ‘The Godfather’). It's said repeatedly that traditionally no Sicilian can refuse a favor asked by a friend on day of their daughter’s giving-away. With such understood, it’s not surprising that more paisans line-up during the event to beseech Don Vito than creditors trying to get a piece of Bernie Madoff [right].

As Puzo emphasizes, all are doing this because of their “respect” for the Don. That word is a substitute, in essence, for friendship. Not the kind we would usually associate with the word, but instead it’s used in the sense of a debt that is voluntarily owed as return for an actual favor or prospect of needing one for the future. It is the construction of this “wall of friendships”, as Don Vito calls it in the book, which insulates one against the injustices of the world and is only undergirded by the even more sacrosanct bond of family.

So who is entitled to such “friendship”? All those willing to show fealty, as is literally demonstrated by the kissing of the Don’s ring. However the overt offering of obsequiousness by one’s followers is not enough to lead men successfully. Puzo proves this in the contrast painted between Don Vito’s two caporegimes [Military equivalent of corps commanders] – Peter Clemenza & Salvatore Tessio [dourly left].

From the git-go, the corpulent Clemenza is depicted as a jovial lover of life – enjoying its fruits and in ending it for those who dared to oppose his Padrone, Don Vito. In the book, it is clearly stated that Clemenza is kept under a much tighter leash in his ‘territory’ than his opposite number, Tessio. One could reasonably presume that Don Vito – in judging his two key lieutenants – thought more highly of Tessio’s talents than those of his fat friend, Clemenza. Right?

In the 1st
movie’s most fateful scene at Don Vito’s gravesite, Michael, his youngest son + inheritor of ‘the family business’, says to his closest confidante he knows Tessio has planned a meeting at which he, Michael, will be assassinated. His confidante, somewhat flabbergasted, asks Michael why Tessio would try this compared to temperamental Clemenza? “Because it’s the smart play; Tessio was always smarter,” Michael answers.

Most hearing such still don’t learn the lesson Puzo is proposing – loyalty trumps smarts.

No, some jackass with blind devotion is not the ideal. However, when given a choice, a leader should opt for loyalty – “skin in the game”, as we say today – rather than sheer brainpower. [Think here, also, of Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” as further testimony why human intelligence only can be dangerous (much less desirable)] Tessio, as the book depicts, was used quite effectively by Don Vito during his career. 'Sallie' played an integral part in solidifying the Don's control of the New York crime world. In the end that service only got Tessio the right to be taken away to a car compacting lot of his choosing for a more dignified demise than summary execution.

This is the most important lesson by far. It can be used as a springboard to understand, for example, the primal importance of the personal relationship between Generals Grant & Sherman which kept the latter in the field and, as a result, preserved the Union. More to come on this hypothesis in future posts.

3.) Always have a wild card – The importance of Luca Brasi

Probably due to space considerations, the movie only offers a very cursory view of Luca Brasi's character. The Johnny Fontane story is told by Michael to his eventual bride, Kay, about how Luca “helped” his father convince a famous bandleader to sign a contract with the aid of focusing the musician’s attention on the large caliber handgun resting at his temple. Certainly the actor, Lenny Montana, playing Luca could not have been better suited. Lastly – after meeting his demise – Luca’s bulletproof vest is delivered with a dead fish to signify that he now resides underneath several hundred feet of water, i.e. “sleeps with the fishes”, and thereby gives us a key zeitgeist line to be re-quoted endlessly.

What the movie doesn't explore is Luca's role helping build Don Vito’s empire. Puzo in the book calls Brasi a “key pillar” of the Godfather’s strength. L.B. is accorded this status because he can “kill without confederates” and is attributed with single-handedly taking-out 6 of the opposition in a 2 week span during some troubles years before Connie’s blessed day. He is Don Vito’s wildcard – a man so vengeful, so unnatural in his bloodlust that other hardened killers fear him.

Puzo traces how Vito Corleone befriends Luca and provides him a repository for devotion which this killer seeks to give to at least one other entity in the universe [God, humanity & civilized behavior all having been chucked by Luca as the book amply + disturbingly documents]. The lesson is the Don is under no illusion about Brasi. Luca is likened to “dynamite” and the Corleone consiligiere sees that this primordial man makes "even The Godfather a little nervous” during their meetings.

All leaders need a wild card to keep the opposition in line; ‘The Godfather’ had Luca Brasi in spades (so to speak).

4.) The benefits of appearing weak to your opposition

This sounds counter-intuitive. After all, doesn’t the perception of weakness beget the tendency for your enemies to want to come after you? Yes and no; we’re talking strategic deception here, not [far left] Neville Chamberlain-like appeasement.

To appear to be weak for no reason, is not the lesson of ‘The Godfather’. In the book this is much more amply delved into and the movie gives only superficial exploration of this concept during Michael’s consolidation of power at the end of the first fill-um by elaborately “orchestrating” the murders of the heads of the other four major crime families plus, for good measure, Moe Green & his own brother-in-law, Carlo Rizzi.

The book gives us a much longer lead to this denouement and shows it to be the last bit of cunning genius from Don Vito before shuffling off (peacefully) his mortal coil. Between them, Don Vito & Michael purposely planned to appear to not be defending the turf of their two caporegimes (and, in the process, antagonizing both of them) while, clandestinely, building a secret regime under Rocco Lampone. This specific tactic serves the dual purpose of drawing-out the traitors in their own ‘family’ while giving false confidence to their enemies that the Corleones were ripe to be overthrown. When Vito dies and the vultures begin to circle, the late Don’s final strategy is sprung by Michael just after the infamous baptism of his sister’s child to whom he stands-in as the lad’s literal Godfather.

Difference here is the Corleones knew they had enemies and most of us think foolishly we don’t. If a leader is to be successful, this beneficial lesson must be preceded by a good look around to recognize the world isn't full of their mutual admiration society members. For a leader who can do such & have patience to play this delicate endgame, the results – as Michael reaped – can devastate their opposition.

So, how relevant is all of this? You can be the judge, but let me, vis-a-vis my thesis above, point-out a few flies in the proverbial ointment:

- The world depicted in ‘The Godfather’ is not just predominantly, but exclusively, male-directed. Vito Corleone believes women + children are a completely separate genus and do not subscribe to any of his precepts. That, obviously, is not the case in the real world today and therefore above is not nearly as prescriptive as a result.

- The concept of a man living by a code has been subsumed, by and large, within various forms of morality – mostly those of evangelical Christianity. I’m not here to argue if this is good or bad, but no one, for example, thinks of themselves anymore in terms of their status as a ‘Hemingway code hero’ and “being afraid of death, but not afraid of dying”. That kind of masculine self-conception, at least for forseeable future, is way past gone.

- The core family values of ‘The Godfather’ really no longer exist. I’m not saying things are better or worse, but some of the natural things Don Vito presumed are no longer valid. Divorce is rampant, not just the exception. A concept of duty to something beyond oneself – usually for “one’s own blood” as Santino emphasizes to Michael when the latter joins the Marines after Pearl Harbor – isn't a part of our culture outside the military.

All above cited plus discounted, still I maintain firmly that ‘The Godfather' can be read as a canon on how to be a leader of (primarily) men, as well as a terrific story. If you liked either of the first two movies [I’ll omit reference kindly to last installment], then, please, pick-up the book for a quick spin at very least. You’ll thank me! [Self-portrait below]

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Random bits: Tournament golf, product idea & Twitter returnee!

"There is golf and there is tournament golf. The two bear no resemblance to one another." - Bobby Jones

Truer words have rarely been spoken. Yesterday played first Best-Ball leg of interclub grudge match with Grove Park C.C. Always a nice schadenfreude experience watching grown men hack-up whole chunks of self-esteem like a college freshman four hours into an inaugral binge-drinking fest. Corollary to this is "I didn't think he could fit that many platinum horseshoes up there" reaction, which is only logical one to watching an admitted duffer hole-out from off-the-green for the third time on same 9 for a net par. Prism of tournament play pressure brings both ends of this spectrum into simultaneous sharp relief.

For myself this was first opportunity to see if new swing paradigm held-up to strain described above. It did. I've now reverted fully to my ages 8-14 [Ford-Carter Administration] baby cut with a degree of elasticity plus tempo possibly approximated only by platform dive-like pouring of syrup @ your local IHOP.

"Promise to keep a box by bedside with your face emblazoned on tip ..." - Mrs. CGB

Such is sacred pledge espoused at dinner last night by my Blushing Bride in event I prematurely shuffle-off my mortal coil and she - after decent interregnum of at least a couple of weeks - begins to entertain new applicants to her portals of connubial pleasure. Personally, I think this is a killer idea above & beyond my spouse's snide comment. I see divorced men lining-up to slap-on images of ex-wives and being positively silly in delight they'll derive when (fully) using product. Lets get the silk screen presses fired-up!

Only real question now is if I dive into these waters, so to speak, and harvest this potential sunken booty of filthy lucre, will Mrs. CGB deign to lower herself to acknowledging the source of such publicly? Smart money is instead on her rapid generation of cover story that ole Uncle Red invented concept of 'White Sale' for linens south of Mason-Dixon line and class action suit got settled quite belatedly in favor of her 'Bama kinfolk. This would serve dual purpose of kicking-away spotlight from moi and, also, lining-up closet Rebs for her annual 'Jeb Davis Grits & Canapes Cotillion'.

Lastly I'm delighted that a good old friend, H.L. Mencken, is active again on Twitter.
After presumably an extended Bavarian bout of indigestion from his last Ocktoberfest revelling, the Bard of Balitmore is now bellowing weekly at the Scopes Monkey trial backbenchers and their daily boobism. A young snap of our Teutonic freund is to the right.
May his leave from the Internet never be so long again and, please, support his efforts by checking-out his august Twitter missives. You'll thank me, I'm sure, for suggestion!