Emotional Intelligence in Leadership: The Godfather Way

8 min read
Jul 7, 2017
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Godfather suit illustration emotional intelligence in leadership

As he washed his baby-blue Cadillac, Peter Clemenza pondered and rehearsed his lines, the expressions of his face. He would be curt with Paulie, as if displeased with him. With a man so sensitive and suspicious as Gatto this would throw him off the track or at least leave him uncertain. Undue friendliness would make him wary. But of course the curtness must not be too angry. It had to be rather an absentminded sort of irritation.
Mario Puzo, The Godfather

When I recently read Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” (I know, I should’ve read it before!), I was thrilled by the emotional intelligence its characters presented.

It was obvious to me that Vito Corleone had this unique ability to see through people, to understand their emotions and motives. But I didn’t expect that all his sidekicks: simple, uneducated Italian-American boys, would have this level of understanding too.

The solution is quite simple, though. In a world where every decision was a matter of life and death, they couldn’t afford to make a mistake, because it could’ve been their last one.

The ability to read people, to notice their gestures and discover their intentions was crucial in their “family’s business.” Just like animals that had to adapt to their environment and develop their senses, each of these people had to develop emotional intelligence to survive.

In today’s post, I’d like to show how emotional intelligence helped Vito Corleone to become the Don. These tips from Don Corleone will help you to become a better leader, a better boss and a better entrepreneur.

Emotional intelligence in leadership - Don Corleone style

Let’s talk about emotional intelligence first. According to Peter Salovey and John Mayer, emotional intelligence (EQ) is an ability to recognize and manage your emotions (e.g. don’t burst with anger when you’re upset) as well as perceiving and understanding emotions of others.

If you’re a manager, a team leader, or a boss, and you lack emotional intelligence, you won’t be able to motivate your team, and you won’t get along with others. It will also negatively affect communication, morale and team spirit among your coworkers.

As I already described in my post “Signs of a Great Leader: How to be a Good Boss,” a leader should influence and aspire others. A leader leads by example and shares their vision with colleagues.

As you see, emotional intelligence in leadership is a key skill.

I won’t lie, learning how to talk to people and how to understand their emotions is tough. Luckily, we can learn anything, if we give it enough time. Start with lessons from Vito Corleone.

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Rule 1: Business is business - use reason over emotion

Never get angry. Never make a threat. Reason with people.

I used to work in different countries with different people, and I’ve noticed that everywhere the number one problem is personal conflicts.

It’s obvious that in this melting pot that is office, you will come across all kinds of personalities. You will like some people and dislike others, that’s the first thing. But the second is that people often bring to the office all their insecurities, and they might get personal every mistake or a failure.

As a good leader, you need to give an example by separating business from personal life. I don’t mean by that you should keep these two areas separated, I rather mean that you should keep your emotions for the time after work. Just like Don Corleone, you should put your reasoning first, never burst with anger, never gossip and make sure there are no misunderstandings among your team.

The most important thing is to remain calm in every situation.

An example:

You notice that John screwed his report up and it’s the third time it happens. It’s obvious that you’re annoyed, but you should wait a moment until you calm down. Don’t tell them off in front of all people, ask them for a quick chat and instead of saying “you made a mistake in your report, again!”, say:

John, I’ve noticed that there are some errors in the report again and I’d like to know if there is anything I can help you with to avoid this problem in the future.

You tell them that you’ve noticed a mistake, but instead of punishing John, you offer them help. If John has a problem or needs help, he won’t be afraid to open up and say that out loud once you offer them your support. But if he was just too lazy to double-check the report, your offer will most likely make him feel like an ass.

Rule 2: Every problem can be solved without a fight

Among reasonable men problems of business could always be solved.

While it’s easy to stay calm during a typical day in the office, it’s easy to lose your mind when you see that a major project is going down. In such situation, it’s too easy to get upset and start looking for the guilty to punish them!

But let’s not forget about the rule number 1: reason over emotion. Will it be beneficial for the business if you start looking for scapegoats to punish them? Or maybe it’s better to spend this time on figuring out how to solve the problem and start solving it?

When you speak loud and appear out of control, people will start to behave defensive, and they might blame others for the failure. In an emergency atmosphere, you need your colleagues to act as a team and start on solving the problem together. It’s much more beneficial for you to resolve the problem peacefully than hang the guilty.

An example:

When I was working in my previous job, I happened to remove over 1000 customers’ accounts from our CRM by accident. As bad as it sounds, there was an even worse part of it: our system has scheduled over 1000 of farewell emails to be sent to each of those customers!

Luckily, my team leader was a reasonable man of business. When I confessed to him what I’ve done, he just gave me a dissatisfied look and he said: “Give me the list of these customers.”

As soon as he got it, he asked us to join a 5-minutes meeting. He explained without judging what I did, and he shared with us a list of tasks (some of us were to add customer accounts manually, and some of us - to cancel scheduled emails). 4 hours later, the emergency was resolved and no one else found out what I did.

Although now it sounds like a quite simple leadership story, it wasn’t that simple back then. And if not for the fact that my team leader understood how unnecessary (and unproductive) was venting on me, who knows how this situation would have happened.

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Rule 3: Don’t break anyone’s trust

We are all honorable men here, we do not have to give each other assurances as if we were lawyers.

A great thing about the Godfather was that whenever he promised to do something, nothing could stop him from keeping his promise. Even when he was approached by a person that disrespected him by rejecting his “friendship,” he could have agreed to do a favor for them.

What a noble man, right?

The thing is, every person that works with you should know that if they approach you, you will meet them the Corleone style:

While bad boss thinks that being a carrot dangler makes them very smart, a good leader knows that keeping their word is crucial for keeping their coworkers trust.

There’s no example this time. Only a pro tip!

When you make a promise to your employee or coworker, you need to make sure that they understand what the conditions of this promise are. If you’re telling John that he will have his rise when he improves his productivity, make sure that you both agree on what you mean by that.

John might think that you will give him a rise when he delivers you next reports with no mistakes, while you think he is proficient enough to make one additional report each week. Make sure that it is clear for him when he can expect you to fulfill your promise.

Godfather illustration poster

“Great men are not born great, they grow great”

Mario Puzo described Vito Corleone as the keeper of “family business” who can always control his reactionary emotions. He is famous for his logical solutions, and he never judges or acts before he fully understands the situation. He was merciful for those who needed his help, and he always kept his word once he promised to do something.

And although Vito Corleone can’t be treated as a role model when comes to his, let’s call it “work ethic,” his emotional intelligence makes him an example of a charismatic and respected leader.

So even if you don’t speak Italian or don’t know what cannoli is, take some time to practice reasoning, understanding emotions and bringing peace to your workplace. You will quickly see that your coworkers start to treat you with trust, respect and are more motivated at work.

That’s an offer you can’t refuse.

You might also like The Zuckerberg Effect: Qualities of a Good Boss.

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