How to lead like Tony Soprano
FORTUNE — It’s been a week since James Gandolfini, the Emmy Award-winning actor who played Tony Soprano on the HBO drama
, died in Rome at the age of 51. Gandolfini’s portrayal of a deeply conflicted but introspective mob boss was monumental in several ways: It not only launched a golden age for scripted television dramas, garnering universal praise, but it also tapped into the anxious psyche of the aging American baby boomer. It also made Gandolfini — a relative unknown until the show’s 1999 debut — into an international star. His funeral services took place Thursday.
The story of a New Jersey mob kingpin who suffers panic attacks and seeks counseling resonated with viewers who felt, like Tony, that they were living the decline of the American experiment — rather than “getting in on the ground floor” as he put it in the pilot. The show dealt with the malaise and ennui head-on, growing darker, even as the September 11 terrorist attacks fundamentally reshaped the country’s self-image. Gandolfini’s Tony — broad shouldered, eyes forlorn, his sarcasm tinted with that distinctly North Jersey whine — became an unlikely but captivating everyman. As David Chase, the show’s creator, put it, a great deal of his “genius resided in those sad eyes.”
But Tony Soprano was something else as well. He was a manager. Strategy is a primary plot point throughout the show’s six seasons, as rival mobsters come and go. By the program’s finale, in fact, Tony’s therapist — Dr. Jennifer Melfi portrayed by Lorraine Bracco — concludes that her treatment itself was a kind of con all along, serving to hone Tony’s prowess as a crook. With that in mind, here are three leadership lessons all business leaders can take from Tony Soprano:
Who’s the boss? — Season 1, Episode 4: “Meadowlands”
Situation: Tony’s roiling conflict with his uncle, Corrado “Junior” Soprano, for control of the DiMeo crime family is threatening to spin out of control. Trucks are hijacked, footsoldiers murdered. At the same time, Tony is struggling to persuade his recalcitrant mother to move into a retirement community (a.k.a. a “nursing home“).
Solution: As far as the Soprano matriarch is concerned, Dr. Melfi suggests that it is sometimes best to give the elderly the “illusion of control,” advice that Tony applies to the conflict with his uncle. Though he is backed by the family’s other captains, Tony ultimately seeks a diplomatic solution. He concedes nominal leadership of the family to Junior, carving out several advantages for himself: avoiding a costly intra-family war and gaining control of income-generating contracts as payment from Junior in return. Most importantly, Junior is set up as the target of an FBI investigation of the family.
Lesson: Control and the illusion of control are two different things. Letting go of the outright struggle for dominance can confer power. Or, as Tony puts it in a later season, “When guys are on the mattresses, they’re not out earning.”
Nip it in the bud. — Season 5, Episode 4: “All Happy Families …”
Situation: Michele “Feech” La Manna is an original gangster, “made” in Italy, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. Feech was a contemporary of Tony’s father and uncle; and Tony made his name, in part, by brazenly robbing a card game run by the elder mobster. After a 20-year prison stint, Feech returns to North Jersey in 2004 to “get back in the game.” Long-dormant tension and resentment quickly boil over as Feech ignores Tony’s authority and grows increasingly popular with the lower ranks.
Solution: Tony sets Feech up to be caught violating the terms of his parole. Feech is summarily sent back to prison.
Lesson: Learn to spot problems before they become serious. In the second season, Tony faces similar conflicts with another ex-convict, Richie Aprile. (In the end, Aprile was hauled out of Tony’s sister’s kitchen in a plastic garbage bag.) Contemplating the Feech dilemma, Tony asks himself, “Did I learn nothing from the Richie situation?” He concludes, “Nip it in the bud.” There’s no quicker way to fix a problem than to stop it from happening in the first place.
When it doubt, Sun Tzu. — Season 3, Episode 8: “He Is Risen” and others
Situation: The “Chinese Prince Machiavelli,” as Tony refers to the master strategist, is a recurring allusion in the show. Sun Tzu’s treatise The Art of War is introduced not surprisingly by Dr. Melfi in therapy and quickly spreads through the ranks of Tony’s crew. Even his sister begins quoting the ancient general. (The book’s mention on the show led to a boost in sales.)
Solution: Axioms Tony and his associates find particularly useful include: “Balk the enemy’s power; force him to reveal himself;” “If your opponent is of choleric temper, irritate him;” and, “A good commander is benevolent and unconcerned with fame.”
Lesson: Look to your predecessors’ ideas for guidance, and use what will serve you best.