Bada bing, bada brilliant

His methods are unorthodox and he certainly has faults, but all leaders can learn from the way Tony Soprano manages people, negotiates and handles conflict, author ANTHONY SCHNEIDER writes


UPDATED AT 1:07 PM EST Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2004


Move over Attila. Step aside Abraham Lincoln. There's a new leadership superhero in town, and he's none other than the godfather of New Jersey.

Tony Soprano may be an unlikely figure for the pages of Fortune magazine or a business book, but he is a leader who responds to the exigencies and opportunities of the times, inspires good work, builds a strong team, revitalizes his business and makes a lot of money.

A mobster millionaire, Tony Soprano has a proven track record of increasing profit margins and keeping himself and his lieutenants out of jail. He has built a powerful team of competent, colourful made-men, most of whom would do just about anything for him. "Just tell me T, what do you want me to do?" one of his captains asks when trouble is brewing. And the majority of his employees, business partners, even foes, trust and respect him. In the words of a crooked cop: "At least with Tony Soprano, you know where you stand."

Tony takes time for his family and insists that his crew takes time for theirs, he tries to be a good father, he's even kind to animals. Oh yeah, and he manages to do it all without getting clipped, no small feat in the mobster trade.

There are many reasons why Uncle T is such a good leader, but the cornerstones of the Tony Soprano approach are vision, speed and decisiveness, and the ability to delegate. He thinks smart, acts fast and executes well.

Vision is like good braciole

Tony's success stems from his vision. Unlike his father, uncle and countless mob execs before him, Tony has a vision for prosperity, security and family. He knows where he wants to go and has a plan for how to get there. As one made-man puts it, "Tony sees the big picture."

Tony's vision is all about people. Unlike many of today's managers who are timid, play by the book and foster competitiveness to drive people to work hard, Tony uses judgment, love and muscle.

It's not easy to get hired. He rejects more candidates than he employs. And when he sees a good potential employee, like Furio Giunta, a tough, amiable Neopolitan who speaks English and understands power and negotiation, Tony hires him away from his current boss.

Tony loves his team. He fosters collaboration not competition. He says "I love you" to captains and soldiers alike, and he says it often. He hugs people, tells them they're doing a good job.

Then he squeezes. Hard. He puts pressure on his team to work smarter and faster. He gives people responsibility and pushes until they make good. And he'll yell, manipulate or punch to make things happen.

Bad leaders say they don't have time for vision. They have too much to do without worrying about artsy-fartsy ideas like vision that don't contribute to the bottom line.

Good leaders say vision is vital, and they spend a lot of time articulating, refining and communicating it. So, Tony thinks long and hard about what areas of his business are the most profitable, who the future leaders are, and what are potential trouble spots. He brushes up on the law, is vigilant about security and goes to great lengths to communicate vision and values. He's a particularly good coach to Christopher Moltisanti, his nephew and a rising star in the family business, telling him: "Think. The big . . . picture."

The vision thing:

See the big picture. Look at things from 5,000 feet.

Predict trends and plan for the future.

Encourage innovation and creativity.

Destroy old ideas.

Refine your vision by reading, discussing and seeking the opinion of experts.

Warp speed and wet feet

The Tony Soprano approach is fast, aiming to create and save an essential business commodity: time. In the five minutes it takes to sip an espresso, Tony analyzes a situation, listens to the background and arrives at a decision. Bada boom.

When Tony works, he works. He multitasks. Just watch him. He's on the phone, coaching a new made-man, listening to his top team, getting reports, delegating, reviewing results. When he's on a business trip, when he drives in his car, or when Furio drives him to a meeting, he works. Even when he is at the Bada Bing, he works -- talks on the phone, sets up meetings, negotiates, checks in.

Tony is not only fast, he's efficient. He gets to the root of a problem so he can reach a decision fast. He delegates quickly, assessing the issue then assigning a team or individual. He rarely has time for a long meeting. He's more likely to choose a focused sit-down to resolve issues. And when the sit-down is over, he stands up. When he's on the phone at the Bada Bing and a call comes through that can't wait, he doesn't hesitate, just moves onto the emergency. If he doesn't need to do something personally, he sends someone else and spends the time having a chat with an anxious captain or playing video games with his son A.J.

Because he has a solid vision of his business and is able to think and react quickly, Tony is decisive. And it is vital that leaders be decisive. They cannot shy away from tough decisions, nor can they go back on a decision once it's been made. Here's Tony on decisiveness: "A wrong decision is better than indecision." He sees decisions clearly and makes them quickly. That's why he is able to work so fast, why his company is agile. He is decisive even when he doesn't have as much information as he would like. And he sticks with his decisions. He gets a lot of flack for making Gigi a captain instead of Ralph, but he stands by his choice.

Faster, better:

Prioritize tasks.

Make lists.

Say no to things you shouldn't do.


Use new technology and processes to increase productivity.

When I delegate, I delegate

Tony is a master at delegating. That's why he's able to maintain so many businesses and business relationships.

He tells one of his capos: "It's your job to make my job easier."

At the same time, he respects the needs, skills and goals of his team -- and earns their respect. "Those who want respect," says Tony, "give respect."

Successful delegation is about people. And when it comes to delegating, Tony thinks more about who than how. To that end, he makes friends with co-workers, becomes personally involved, knows about their private lives, interests, families. He talks to Christopher about life and love, knows about Paulie's mom and Hesh's hobbies.

He believes employees' needs and goals are as important as any task they are given. As a result, he's not a spurious boss, doesn't hand off an assignment to the first person who walks past his office. He knows management is a two-way street; that's why he fosters strong, lasting relationships, builds trust and assigns tasks that help the delegate learn and grow.

And when Tony delegates, he gives full responsibility. When he decides to make Gigi, not Ralph, a captain, Tony sticks by Gigi's decisions. So, when Gigi picks the sickly "Old Man" Baccalieri to do a hit, Tony doesn't get in Gigi's way, doesn't undermine the new captain's authority. "It was Gigi's idea," he says. "I'm not cutting his . . . balls off."

Don't do it all:

Delegate tasks both large and small.

Set realistic goals and attainable deadlines.

Be available for support, coaching and guidance.

Follow up to monitor progress and problems.

If you delegated poorly, reassess and delegate differently next time.

Leadership poster boy? Not

Asked by his wife, Carmela, where he was one night, Tony says: "I wasn't anywhere. I was a monogamy poster boy." Well, that's not exactly true. Maybe he wasn't unfaithful that particular night, but he's not exactly faithful.

And he's no leadership poster boy either. While he has a natural talent for leadership and many of the skills of a new breed of manager, Tony doesn't always get it right.

Tony does everything on a grand scale.

He's King Lear in a SUV, Hercules on Prozac. It follows, then, that his mistakes are big, glaring, ugly. He's an inconstant father and unfaithful husband. He's deeply prejudiced, and his racism has deleterious effects on his self, family and business.

He communicates too little, turns a deaf ear too often. And he's prone to excessive violence.

How does he respond when his sister calls with news he doesn't want to hear? He yells and breaks the phone.

What happens when Ralph sets fire to a stable? Let's just say: body parts in a bathtub.

But at his best, Tony aspires to a new style of leadership and personifies a new management paradigm that is as effective as it is timely.

His methods are unorthodox and he certainly has his faults, but we can all learn strategies and tactics from the way he manages people, resolves conflict, negotiates and leads. Bada brilliant.

Anthony Schneider is the CEO of a New York-based Internet strategy firm and author of Tony Soprano on Management (Berkley Books, 2004).

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