Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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A wrong decision is better than indecision: Eight leadership lessons from Tony Soprano

Published 21 June 2013 12:03, Updated 27 June 2013 00:45

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A wrong decision is better than indecision: Eight leadership lessons from Tony Soprano

“Those who want respect, give respect.” One of many great quotes from Tony Soprano, played by the late, great James Gandolfini.

The premature death of James Gandolfini, the actor who played Tony Soprano on the cult television show The Sopranos, has thrown the show’s millions of fans into mourning for the man, while providing them with the opportunity to fall in love with the show and its central character all over again.

Even in these stifling times of political correctness, there was no offence taken at the Italian Mafioso stereotypes so deliciously portrayed in the program, which ran between 1999 and 2007; especially by Gandolfini himself. (In the show’s first season, Tony Soprano was way ahead of anyone of a PC disposition: “I’m in the waste management business. Everybody immediately assumes you’re mobbed up. It’s a stereotype. And it’s offensive.”)

The premature death of Gandolfini, at just 51 of a heart attack, was tragic, but it was somehow fitting that the star should have died in Rome, en route to attending a film festival in Sicily, the Mafia’s heartland.

Gandolfini’s triumphant turn as Tony Soprano has left its indelible mark on popular culture. And also, it may come as a surprise (if not all-out horror) to some, on management culture.

Tony Soprano, the world’s best known “waste management consultant”, was the subject of two management books: Tony Soprano on Management, by leadership coach and former advertising man Anthony Schneider, and Leadership Sopranos Style: How to Become a More Effective Boss, by another leadership coach, Deborrah Himsel.

On sober (and just a little mischievous) reflection, it should not come as any real surprise that Tony Soprano is remembered as a role model for corporate leaders. Today’s brand of mealy-mouthed, duplicitous, jargon-laden and short-term thinking chief executives could not be further removed from leadership Soprano style.

True, there are some aspects to Tony Soprano’s leadership style that Harvard Business School is right not to include in its MBA programs. But let’s not be negative here; Tony wouldn’t like that.

Here’s my countdown of Tony Soprano’s greatest leadership lessons – leadership lessons to die for, one might say – illustrated by some of his most memorable quotes.

1. It’s lonely at the top

All due respect, you got no f..king idea what it’s like to be Number One. Every decision you make affects every facet of every other f..king thing. It’s too much to deal with almost. And, in the end, you’re completely alone with it all.

The chief executive’s role is a unique role. For anyone who holds this role, or aspires to, it’s important to understand that being a leader is not just another job. It is a distinctive and many-faceted role, and everything flows from that. It’s why leadership is not for everyone.

2. Learn from your mistakes

There’s an old Italian saying: you f..k up once, you lose two teeth.

A wrong decision is better than indecision.

Making mistakes is an inevitable part of making decisions; it is certainly not an excuse for not making decisions. A mistake may indeed come with unwanted consequences, but successful leaders know that a mistake made is a mistake made once only. Losing two teeth is bad enough; the consequences of making the same mistake again could be a lot worse. But whatever the pain, and whatever the risks, decisions have to be made. If decisions are not your thing, neither is leadership.

3. The vision thing.

Think! The big f..king picture!

A chief executive is constantly making decisions, solving problems, assessing risk and responding to opportunities – but the minutiae of the everyday must be in the context of short-, medium- and long-term objectives, otherwise it’s just chaotic ad hocery. A sustainable business requires a leader who know where it’s going.

4. You have authority – use it

What use is an unloaded gun?

There’s no point being a leader and not using the authority that comes with that. Some decisions are unpleasant, but they are also necessary, and they can only be made by the chief executive. Whether it’s rebuking or sacking an incompetent manager, or closing down a division that is not performing, chief executives who avoid unpleasant decisions will render themselves incapable of doing their job.

5. Having authority also means knowing when not to use it

You can’t fight every f..king battle, right?

Being incapable of exercising authority is not a good thing when you’re a leader; but knowing when not to pull the trigger is. Some battles just can’t be won. Attempting to find a solution to every problem is a sure way for chief executives to spend most of their day banging their heads against a wall or running around in circles – pick your cliché. And even some battles that can be won may not have to be won by you; be prepared to delegate.

6. Work-life balance: know your place

I got problems at work. I got problems at home.

A leader’s day at the office can be long and fraught; those days should be left at the office, or they will poison valuable – and precious – family and recreational time. Knowing how to switch on and off is one of a chief executive’s most important skills.

7. Have a plan

Let’s do it right. Act normal. Plan things out. Make no mistakes.

Running a business, big or small, is complex, because the organisation is a complex, almost living organism. Some decisions can be made intuitively, and need to be so. It’s important for chief executives to be able to think quickly on their feet. But only so much of leadership can come down to gut feel and a sixth sense. There is no sustainability without a plan.

8. Dealing with people

Those who want respect, give respect.

Some chief executives lose the skill of dealing with people as individuals; they lose or gloss over their empathy for others; they no longer consider it important to be able to hold conversations and to listen; even though these are the attributes that often get them to their positions of leadership. Successful chief executives understand the importance of the “r” word: respect.

Vale, James Gandolfini. Fortunately your creation, Tony Soprano will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of fans – and hopefully in a few business schools too.

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