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Tony Soprano as Management Mentor

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Tony Soprano as Peter Drucker.

Tony Soprano as Peter Drucker.

Last week the actor (James Gandolfini) who portrayed the iconic televion character, Tony Soprano, passed away while on vacation in Rome. In addition to the wonderful memories of dramatic moments he left behind as the Mafia Boss are some very pertinent and relevant reflections on management and leadership that were integrated into the soap opera life led by the character.  While no one will ever mistake Tony Soprano for Peter Drucker, there are relevant insights that contemporary business executives can take from the show. Among the lessons are:

  1.   Heavy is the head that wears the crown

Tony recognized that he alone was ultimately responsible for outcomes and results of the organization’s efforts.  Often, the pressure of being the “Boss” weighed on him and caused him to struggle with the loneliness of being the person accountable for the “family.”

Maintain Work-Life Balance

While not always successful at managing the sometimes contradictory needs of home/family life with “family” life, Tony shares his struggles with transitioning from his professional life to his life at home.  Being able to “leave work in the office” is a key requirement for leaders who are in it for the long haul.

 Learn from Mistakes – or Die!

While most business executives won’t have as dire consequences as the Sopranos if they make a mistake, the lesson is still essential.  If the Leader does not incorporate learning from mistakes made by others or him/herself they will be destined to suffer significant losses.  However, Tony Soprano recognized that making a mistake occasionally is part of the expectation of leading and should not be used as an excuse to avoid making a decision.  The key take-away for a skilled leader is not to necessarily fear making mistakes as much as it is to ensure there is never a repeat of the same mistake.

 Don’t Get Lost in the Weeds

As the person who has to ultimately answer for every decision and action of subordinates, Tony was challenged to remain focused on the overall goals of the endeavor and not get too caught up in small squabbles and battles or get distracted by less critical issues.  As the Leader, he had to be laser-focused on the entirety of the organization’s efforts and constantly reinforce the vision that he (and his predecessors) had for the ongoing maintenance and growth of the organization.

He had to be certain that the right blend of short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term needs were being met simultaneously, while not losting focus on the sustaining principles of the organization.  Given that his organization was staffed with challenging employees that did not always share his vision (which may be no different than most organization), he had to avoid falling into chaos or falling prey to pursuing ad hoc or poorly thought out objectives.

 Power Has a Role

Tony Soprano often battled internal challenges around the use of power and having to make decisions that impacted others.  While some of the decisions are difficult to make and have implications for himself and others, he does know at times that they are necessary.  As unpleasant as it is to terminate someone’s employment or shut down an office/store/region for a small businessperson, the stakes are higher for Tony Soprano where termination means far more than just loss of revenue.

Not Every Problem Needs a Solution

At times, Tony Soprano recognized that making decisions for his subordinates was not in his (or the organization’s) best interests.  He allowed his “henchman” to occasionally navigate through their own decision-making struggles.  Further, he also knew that at times, it was best to avoid or walk away from a confrontation.  Some battles were left unfought and in very graphic terms, not every trigger demanded to be pulled.

Planning Counts

 Being responsible for an organization (whether a single location or a wide-ranging multi-location business) entails complexity and constant evolution.  Therefore, given that certain decisions will need to be made “off-the-cuff” or in the spur of the moment – it is essential that there be a plan in place to rely upon to guide those immediate decisions.  Trying to “wing it” and be solely responsive as opposed to being proactive is a path to making huge mistakes borne of lack of direction, clarity, and focus.

People Count

The dramatic aspects of the television show, and of much of the work of the CEO in organizations invariably comes down to how people are treated.  The need to demonstrate; compassion, empathy, understanding, and connection with people is essential.  Technology, strategy, products, etc. may be necessary to succeed, but the most important component in any organization is the “Soft-Skills” interaction.

While Peter Drucker has claimed the title of Management Guru, and few of us would want to replicate the reality of Tony Soprano – there are still core messages that any of us can internalize from the dramatic portrayal James Gandolfini gave us through the character of Tony Soprani.

David Zahn

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