Project Management the Don Corleone Way: 10 Business Lessons From the Godfather

Project Management the Don Corleone Way: 10 Business Lessons From the Godfather
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The Godfather as a Business Movie?

Business Insider recently published an article on the 7 classic business movies everyone should watch, but the Godfather wasn’t listed. I guess it’s not thought of as a business movie as such, but to me there are many more business lessons – especially project management ones – in the Godfather, than movies like Jerry Maguire.

Of course, I’m not about to provide a lesson in using violence in the workplace, and even the Don only used this as a last resort. But, there is a great deal to take from Vito Corleone in the way he managed his projects on a daily basis. Allow me to demonstrate…

It’s All About Respect

Winning the respect of your team as a project manager is easier said than done, and you don’t have the kind of tools at your disposal that Don Corleone did. As tempted as you may be sometimes, threats just aren’t going to cut it in the world of project management. Respect, of course, has to be earned.

So, how does the Godfather manage this without getting his hands dirty? Many of the other tips that follow will all add up to creating respect, but there are other more direct ways too.

  • Make sure your team knows that you respect them. Even use the word respect and tell them why this is so; this is something the Godfather does a great deal. Although the Don has a considered and measured approach to everything, it is almost like he is thinking aloud. He lets you know what he is thinking, but is careful not to reveal too much. He’ll say things like “in the past you have done, this, this and this and I respect you for it”, “you are a great…”.
  • This leads on to straight talking. The Godfather lays his cards out on the table and leaves no one in his organization in any doubt as to his thoughts. Be the same with your team, don’t leave them guessing as to what’s happening next as they will feel isolated.

If you garner respect from your team, then your job of project manager will become so much easier.

You Can’t Choose Your Family

As the saying goes “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” Something Don Corleone must have been all too aware of at times, with members of his “family” who weren’t performing as he would have liked. The project manager is in a very similar situation here, not really having any say over the team he has to manage, but nonetheless they are part of your team and you have to learn the best way to manage them.

At the beginning of the project, keep as close an eye on your team as you can to try and gauge their strengths and weaknesses and play to them as best you can. Although their roles are somewhat set because of their expertise, look out for those who are most organized, considerate to others, or those who think they should be leader. For example, although Michael Corleone was the youngest of Vito Corleone’s sons, it is he who is selected to become the next Don. Making the older son, Fredo, the boss would have been a huge error, so he found use for him elsewhere – more on Fredo later!

Nurture Relationships

The project manager often is in the position of very little actual power, and certainly doesn’t work in the way of your regular-Joe manager in that you can’t hire, fire or award pay rises. You can’t dish out dollars to win over loyalty and support, but as shown in the Godfather, a great deal more than money can assure you of a team member’s loyalty; so use what tools you have at your disposal. One of the best ways is to show appreciation for their efforts. Make sure you praise your team for a job well done, and that you make sure others (such as their manager) hear about it too.

Dealing With Scope Creep the Mafia Way

Yes, even the Godfather had to deal with scope creep. “No Sicilian can refuse any request on his daughter’s wedding day,” … which leaves someone of Vito Corleone’s powers at the mercy of some serious requests, and definite examples of scope creep.

The film begins with a man asking for “justice” (he wants someone “whacked”), even though the Don has no business with the other party whatsoever and, is inclined to deny the request, not having close ties with the man requesting such an act either. He handles it by pointing out what a large request this is, and then repeats it when the requester persists. He then goes on to list all the reasons why he shouldn’t acquiesce, including the fact that he only hears from this man when he wants something and that this is disrespectful. This makes the requester even more grateful to the Don and indebted to him when, of course, the Don agrees.

The Don could have refused, but considered what cost this would be too him, and if it was within his scope. It was a stretch for him to agree, but he decided that it was something he could do. Do the same as a project manager, and consider the future benefits of agreeing to the odd occasion of scope creep.

Don’t Leave Anyone Out

The big wedding picture that should include all the family is called off at the beginning of the Godfather film, as the Don won’t have it done without his son Michael being present; it’s important to make sure everyone is included. This is also true of project meetings. Even if it doesn’t directly concern everyone on your team, make sure they are present at the meeting so everyone knows what is going on.

By contrast, later in the film, Fredo (one of the Don’s older sons) is sent away to manage operations in Las Vegas. Although this was under the guise of protecting him, the Don knew Fredo wasn’t up to being a boss in New York and thought that Las Vegas was more fitting to his personality. Of course, this then leaves Fredo out of the loop and free to do as he pleases. Fredo shouldn’t have been left out as he felt unappreciated and could not handle such responsibility on his own; this then led to huge problems down the line for the next Don (Michael) to sort out. The conclusion to Fredo’s story is in the Godfather 2; it’s not a happy ending.

Don’t Micromanage, Get Organized

One of the reasons that crime families like the Corleones become so successful is due to the organization; not just of each task andmafiaorg project, which is orchestrated with supreme timing and detail, but even by being organized as a business. The Mafia structure is inherent to any project’s success.

When put in charge of a project, it’s all too tempting to micromanage, but by establishing some kind of organization structure, you can trust more in your team. Micromanaging will leave you exhausted and your team with low morale as they think you don’t trust in them and their abilities.

You may choose not to publish your PM organization chart, but have it in mind and make sure your team members are aware of their roles. For example, if you have several computer programmers on your team, it makes sense to have one of them the head programmer (capo), then you can go to that one person if you need an answer on something as well as trusting in them to help the others (soldiers) should they need it.

If you have a sizable team or project to manage, then you might also consider appointing someone your “underboss.” This becomes particularly valuable as not only do you have an ally, you have someone who is able to take over the project should you fall ill, for example.

Know Your Enemies But Don’t Keep Them Close

Don Corleone was a great believer in keeping an eye on his enemies, and even at times holding meetings with them. He did not hold his enemies close though. There may be times when others (even those inside your project team) want you and your project to fail, but don’t let it put you off course. Swift action is needed to let these people know their place; violence however should be reserved for the movies! Let them understand you see their point of view, put across yours and continue onward; keep an eye on them from causing future problems, but do not let it distract you from your project.

All Work and No Play

Family is everything in the Mafia world, both in terms of business and as a support network; those outside of the business family such as wives and children aren’t privy to certain information in the Godfather so as to protect them. In the Godfather no one talks ‘business’ at the dinner table, and this is one of the key ways to become a better project manager.

We don’t want to always talk “work, work, work” so schedule some time with your team to just be you and find out a bit more about each other; even if it’s a just a trip to the coffee shop, or sharing a pizza, watching a match or sharing a beer.

Make Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse

OK, this has been quoted so many times it’s starting to sound like a cliché, but this is a great quote to remember for the project manager when dealing with difficult situations. When your back is against the wall, sometimes you are just going to have to be tough but fair, and assert what power you have.

Show them two options they have, making it clear even to the stupidest person, which is the best course of action. Not quite the rough approach of the Godfather: “Either your signature will be on that contract or your blood,” but you get the idea! Use this only when you have to or it becomes the norm and therefore meaningless. It can also create an unharmonious situation for a while, even though it gets the job done.

Call on Outside/Inside Help

One of the most prized assets of the crime syndicate, is that of Consigliere (see organization chart above). As Michael Corleone explains, a consigliere is “an advisor… counselor. Very important to the family.”

A consigliere is a useful thing to have at the disposal of a project manager too. While in larger organizations the HR department could fulfill this role (the consigliere in the Godfather is also a lawyer), it might pay to have a named person be the advisor/counselor for your project management team. This gives your team someone to go to when they feel they can’t approach you, or just for advice on something that might crop up. This also prevents the situation of getting their manager or line manager who isn’t involved in the project, from becoming ensnared in PM business, creating a messy situation.

While it’s true the Don didn’t always get it right, I still think he is one of the best fictional examples of a great project manager we have and these tips will send you off the road to project success. The films are quite lengthy though, so if you think I’ve missed some excellent examples or you disagree with any of my thoughts, please leave a comment below.


Mafia Structure, Mafia Today,

Mafia organization chart was created by, and is the property of Wendy Finn.