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Grist: What I Learned From The Sopranos

With business leaders trying to clean up their acts, why are they turning to Tony Soprano, management guru?
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We may be nearing the end of The Sopranos, but the show's influence isn't about to fade away anytime soon. Consider the two books that I have on my desk right now: Leadership Sopranos Style: How to Become a More Effective Boss and Tony Soprano on Management. These aren't humor books or satires, with tips like the best way to eliminate a competitive threat is by taking the term at face value. No, they are tongue-out-of-cheek business books, deconstructing HBO's blockbuster mob drama from an organizational perspective, purporting to offer well-intentioned business leaders valuable lessons and guidance.

Even so, their serious miens court parody. Anthony Schneider, a "nationally recognized marketing consultant"--who is responsible for the Tony Soprano on Management opus--notes that "Leaders must step up and steer new courses to get their companies back on track and regain public confidence. They must adapt to meet the challenges of today's business environments. And Tony Soprano is the surprising role model for this new breed of leader."

Deborrah Himsel, who penned Leadership Sopranos Style--and holds a senior position at Avon--writes, sans irony, that "I have a great deal of evidence that tells me that Tony's leadership style can ensure effective leadership development for all levels of executives." Her book includes "Boxed Tonyisms" at the end of each chapter: Under the rubric "Coaching With Compassion," Tony's wisdom is "I got some news you're not gonna like."

There's something nutty and curious about this. In this era where we supposedly are focusing on corporate governance and transparency, we are being instructed to seek business lessons from a New Jersey crime family. We pillory Dennis Kozlowski and Bernie Ebbers but deify Tony Soprano. Does anyone take this seriously? Should they?

That Tony Soprano has muscled aside Tony Roberts should be no surprise. Clever marketing shtick like Tony Soprano on Management follows in a long tradition of works that derive sage business advice from historical figures. Machiavelli is an obvious suspect; his name has given not just an adjective but books like The Boss: Machiavelli on Managerial Leadership. A few years ago there was an obsession with the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, and a raft of books emerged applying his "art of war" thinking to every imaginable business situation.

There's also Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership, Lincoln on Leadership, Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership, a slew of books on Churchill, and my personal fave, Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.

What is it about business leaders that makes so many of them vulnerable to the latest marketing fad? They're appropriately skeptical when it comes to other aspects of their business. They've got all the right, tough questions for anybody trying to sell them something. But they're ready to study the manner in which Tony Soprano handles issues of a changing competitive environment. I think it's because leaders are actually uncomfortable with leadership. They've built businesses because they've been gripped by a vision, not because they want to "be the boss." Learning from a real, intuitive boss is seductive.

In fact, the most valuable business lessons from The Sopranos aren't Tony's, but David Chase's--the show's creator. And they're not complicated. Be fearlessly innovative, shoot high, don't be infatuated by early success, never retreat from putting a high value on your work. And recognize the ancillary value of your efforts; The Sopranos has sold more than a million DVD copies of each season's shows.

Also recognize that some people will make money off your back, unfairly perhaps--but that can help your business. The Sopranos doesn't make a penny directly from these unauthorized management books, but they build The Sopranos brand, and help support direct, authorized spinoffs like The Tao of Bada Bing, which Chase edited, and The Sopranos Family Cookbook, which has sold more than 500,000 copies. The business of The Sopranos, in the end, is far more instructive than the Sopranos' business. Other than the HUD scam, of course, which we will be incorporating in our 2005 business plan.

Contributor Adam Hanft is president of Hanft Raboy & Partners, a Manhattan-based advertising and marketing firm.

Last updated: May 1, 2004




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