Lady, be the don! 5 Leadership takeaways from the movie “Godfather”

Subha Shrinivasan
8 min readMar 8, 2020

I am a big fan of the movie series “Godfather”. This entire blog is based on it, so if you have not seen the movie (part 1 mostly), probably this blog is not going to make sense. But you can still read on for the powerful dialogues!

A lot of people perceive Godfather as a movie about the underworld. But for me, it is a class act of strong leadership. I have seen the movie more than a dozen times and have never not been intrigued by the Dons. It has taught me lessons in being in control of myself, my life, my work, and my business enterprise. The biggest takeaway — Stay in control.

I am saying all this in a very positive way and not referring to narcissistic or control freak behavior that goes around wrecking people’s lives. I am talking about true leaders that are in charge and what we as women aspiring to be in top leadership roles can take away from Don/Michael Corleone.

Here are 5 different class acts by the A-listers which I found as a common baseline character among them and also which the Dons exhibit in the Godfather movie. I feel women need to go by these 5 rules at workplace, unabashedly so.

The choice of words & language

This sentence oozes power and confidence. It shows the confidence of a man who knows what he wants, anticipates possible outcomes and influences the same.

Communication at leadership levels should be like this. Confident and controlled.

I have observed many young girls that join the workforce act and behave in a permission speaking tone, mainly to please higher authorities. Such as,

  1. Can I do this?
  2. Will it be okay if I did not do this?
  3. Oh I am very sorry (for trivial things)
  4. I am not smart, I don’t understand this

This kind of permission seeking, apologizing for trivia is not being “nice”. In real corporate scenarios, this is showing that you are not in control of yourself.

The same language when observed in the language of leaders, leaves little room for doubt or passing the authority to someone else. They display confidence, control and a thorough research for what they stand for. The phrasing of the question is usually

  1. “Here is what I think I will do. Do you have any feedback”?
  2. “It will be okay if we did it this way and here is why — the risks and the plan for mitigation”
  3. That was unexpected, but I will see how to turn this around
  4. I think I get it, but the full details are still missing

Why is this so important? Leaders understand that they are there for a reason. To think ahead of the crowd & the times and plan for the same. Second guessing and living passively out of others plans puts them in a very vulnerable position of not being taken seriously. Talking transforms minds, which transforms behaviors which can transform institutions. It is important to get this right and use the right tone and words in communication.

Leaders do not give away their control by using the wrong tone or words in communication. The world perceives a leader through their language first — It is very important to send out the signal that you are a true leader.

Communication is power. In most formal settings and conversations, communication is to get a desired outcome. To move things in a certain direction. Hence, calibrate, measure and control what you say and how to say it. Not just once, but most of the time. That is also why we should talk very less.

Lesson 1: Practice measured, calculated controlled communication. Don’t lose respect through loose communication.

The Body language

Look at this image. What does it radiate? From one look at it, everyone very well knows that this is a powerful person in control. Will anyone dare mess with such a body language?

Why is body language so important? And is there a leadership body language? Well, there seems to be so.

Research says that human beings have sensory skills that can pick up feelings, emotions and tendencies even before you utter a word. Starting from the eyes, breathing, hands, head nods, tone of the voice — we are giving out signals all the time. This is why psychologists say first impressions are very important. Because, 90% of the opinion is formed even before you said ‘Hello’.

What are the common traps or a weak body language, mainly displayed by women?

  1. A shrill voice
  2. Loud tone
  3. Loose giggling and laughing
  4. Fidgety, restless, uncertain behavior
  5. Fast breathing with fast talking
  6. Popped up eyes
  7. Lot of movement
  8. Shaking

Why are these wrong? Again they send out a signal that you are uncertain, tentative and not in control. For every bad news or a tough situation that is thrown at leaders, if they react by raising their voice or talking fast or by shaking or by laughing, would you be happy you went to them?

Leaders react very less. They are characterized by slow controlled breathing and almost a robotic body language that is very hard to crack into and break the calm. They are calm, in control and they are very prepared and unnerved by things that happen around them. They expect and understand that life brings in challenges and the way only way to handle this better is by not losing calm.

So ladies, stop shaking. Build up that confidence muscle and let it flow like blood in your body displaying a calm demeanor.

LESSON 2: Display a calm, steel like body language to earn respect. Do not display any inner insecurities outside.

Bold, Audacious action

Going back to Godfather again, Michael Carleone acts in really bold, audacious ways. Starting from the time he needs to save his father in the hospital with just one man to help to killing his father’s shooters, he displays a penchant for bold striking action. He is fearless. And he nails it with this one dialogue — “It is not personal Sonny. It is strictly business”.

When things are taken very personal and when the self/ego is put in the center of decisions and actions, they are always skewed. Most decisions go wrong when not thought out holistically and thought out with the self in mind.

Leaders act with a sense of detachment. There are no emotional selfish moves. There is only doing what is right for the organization or the cause. For the why it all started.

A lot of people talk. Talk big. There are 50% of the talkers that also take action. But the actions are measured, little and scattered. There is the cream de la of 1% that takes big, bold, risky, audacious actions. At the right time and at a time that is most essential, leaders need to decide and take big bet risks. Leaders hate to lose market domination. To maintain that domination, big actions are sometimes required.

Any organization that survived for long, has had a visionary leader that cared less for him/her and acted bold.

So ladies, develop that bold action gene and as Warren buffet says “Go for the fences”.

LESSON 3: At the right opportunity, display an appetite to take risks and go for big bold audacious actions to prove that you are action oriented and fearless.

Building Loyalty

As much as leaders are respected for their own power, they are also respected for keeping the right team and talent with them.

That is why leaders make sure that, in their own environment and command, they have a loyal set of team mates that would help them thrive. Without a team that shares the same vision and members that will translate their vision into action, leaders wont stand ground for a minute.

It is my observation that many men take their key people along with them in every career progression/transition they make. In that process, I have also seen them pick new members and add to the entourage. But, I have never heard/seen women do this. Forming relationships with other women, helping them grow along with them, giving them opportunities to thrive.

Of course, now, there is a lot of talk and emphasis about women supporting each other. For me, the biggest form of support that we can give each other is like this. As we progress, as we climb career mazes, to keep building our own lovely & loyal team mates along with us and giving them wings in our journey. And making sure that they are loyal by taking care of them, with a vengeance.

LESSON 4: Build your loyal entourage. Connect with other aspiring women and support each other, rather than looking at them as competition. Give them wings and fly together.

Dominate your niche

In the business world, most successful players go for market domination. Starbucks is a classic example of domination in a coffee chain. They are everywhere.

Men by design or genetics, especially those at the top, go dominate. Either subtle or in the open, I have observed that men never like to be Numero 2. It is always Numero Uno. How about us, the women?

Many of us have been told that it is very important to play the politics to be at the top. That is the most counterproductive advice that one can follow. As Indra Nooyi says — “Understand the politics, but don’t play the politics”. It is a double edged sword to take sides in a very flux environment where the power centers can change in a blink. We may not be tuned in to do politics either.

Rather, as women, it is best to have one sought after skill that no one has and which the organization desperately needs. It is very important to map the power centers and be at the intersection of all of them with a very unique skill. It could be technical prowess, execution excellence, communication or operations. Whatever be it, keep up-skilling that niche and never let someone else surpass your niche. And that requires two things: 1) To keep improving on it. 2) to keep showing/telling the world about it.

Men have some uncanny ways of marketing themselves — by raising their hands for the tasks or taking the boss out for a dinner and talking about their skills. We women, are very bad in putting the limelight on ourselves. So in the next meeting, speak up. A little self promotion does not hurt. Lean In.

LESSON 5: You are either at the table or the at the menu. Which one do you want to be?