by Tom Bunzel

Management Lessons from the Sopranos

Jun 14, 200713 mins

Tony Soprano is a survivor who has guided his “business” through some heavy competitive waters, using street smarts, guile and an ability to read people. Think you could learn something from this?

Many companies try to promote a family atmosphere, but there are families and there are “families,” as fans of The Sopranos know quite well. As a corporate manager, particularly in the information technology arena, you can probably learn quite a bit from the hands-on style of the Sopranos’ Godfather, Tony—both in terms of what to do and what not to do.

First of all, as Tony likes to say, “Let’s get one thing straight.” Or as my own father said, “Don’t screw around with Uncle Sam.” The overt and the more subtle illegality of much of the Sopranos’ business and the way it is carried out is not meant to be a model for information managers. The fact is that most of Tony’s DiMeo crime family has done time, along with the members of the family’s chief rival, the Lupertazzis. Others are under indictment, and as most viewers know, many are under surveillance. Nor is it this article’s intention to suggest that Tony’s chief information strategy be adopted by reputable businesses: namely, destroying and shredding any possible paper trail at the first whiff of investigation, unless you want to be invited to visit a grand jury.

Leadership Style

Still, it doesn’t take an org chart to admire Tony’s leadership style. He is very much “hands on.” His underlings, from captains on down, know exactly where they stand. Tony likes to be loved and admired, but he has no trouble being feared and respected.

If you watch the show regularly, you have to marvel at how Tony keeps a warm personal relationship with his cohorts and yet also keeps his professional distance. All of his subordinates know there is a line that is not to be crossed. Tony can be extremely generous with his colleagues—as he was with his pal Artie Bucco, who owns Nuovo Vesuvio, the Italian restaurant where the family has its “meetings.” But when the business was threatened, everything became “strictly business,” as when the restaurant was burned down.

You could do well to emulate Tony’s ability to be a pal to his colleagues when it’s appropriate—he throws lavish parties and is warm and friendly unless threatened. On the other hand, he is ruthless and calculating if something or someone threatens the bottom line.

Tolerance for Personal Differences—Up to a Point

How Tony handles the personal foibles of others is also revealing. When one of his “best performers” and a family man on the surface turned out to be a closet homosexual, Tony was willing to look the other way, partly because of a long personal relationship with the man’s family. But again, when the man’s sexual preferences became public knowledge and a threat to the business itself—because it ran so counter to the grain of the “culture” of the mob families and threatened the DiMeo family’s reputation—Tony realized that he had to cut his losses.

Cutting losses is a major theme for the Sopranos’ boss. This season, Christopher, his “nephew” who was like a son to Tony, became a major problem. Christopher had used his business acumen in the Soprano family to further a film career, unfortunately divulging certain unsavory business practices and family secrets. Perhaps more importantly, his work had suffered because his own personal mission (successful artist) ran counter to the family business plan (make money).

Ultimately, like a son or not, Christopher had to go. (Of course, in the IT world that would mean a pink slip. In Tony’s, unfortunately it means a coffin.)

Aside: Christopher’s big Achilles’ heel was alcoholism and drug addiction. While Tony overtly supported his nephew’s efforts to clean up his act, the man’s final undoing came about because in order to do his job he had to hang out in bars, and drink and socialize. While this is a less prevalent problem in IT than in, let’s say, marketing, managers do need to be aware of how social and peer pressure can sometimes lead their colleagues to go counter to what may be the company’s stated interest (sobriety) in favor of the bottom line (socializing with clients and making deals).

Dealing with Temptation

The Sopranos’ world is one of constant temptation—and a good manager should be aware of his colleagues’ potential weaknesses and offer help when needed. Gambling and hanging out in strip clubs is seen as a “perk” for many of Tony’s associates, both inside and outside the family. Yet, as you watch the program, that “perk” turns out to be the root cause of their inevitable demise. Even Tony, whose business is partly gambling, gets in way over his head.

Can you say “stock market” or “housing bubble”? How much attention do you pay, or do you even want to pay, to the off-hour activities of your colleagues when you’re at an outof-town convention or conference? Is their behavior in Las Vegas that different from Tony’s—and should you care? Will these pressures inevitably affect their performance in your business?

Old-School Values

One of Tony’s more admirable qualities is his ability to accept advice and mentoring. He respects his father’s generation and admires its values. With his own children he stresses family, loyalty and personal responsibility. When he gets into trouble, he calls on Hesh, an old family business adviser who has seen almost everything. In today’s youth-oriented technology world, these resources are frequently ignored. Let’s face it: Hesh does not have e-mail or a BlackBerry.

Tony respects tradition and achievement. He is deferential to those who came before him and built the business he now runs. He wishes he could ingrain some of these values and qualities in his slacker son.

But elders are not always wise. When Tony’s uncle finally became the new Boss of New Jersey, Junior Soprano proceeded to drive everybody crazy. Not only did he refuse to honor any deals made by his predecessor, but he also didn’t let any of his newfound wealth trickle down to the guys below.

At first, Tony was content to let Junior be the front man and take the heat, an interesting corporate strategy when one wants to keep a low profile. But eventually Junior had to go.

Willing to Negotiate

Tony proved to be very different from Junior. When there was a disagreement among the leaders of the families, he was generally willing to negotiate. Particularly in the latter episodes, when Tony had serious health issues, he sought out win-win solutions to problems. He was no longer one to try to grind the last penny in a negotiation, which left his adversary with nothing and had him lose face. He knew that such an adversary can and will do everything he can to bring him down.

Truth be told, that’s what happened to Junior: He made so many enemies, everyone was happy when Tony took over the business and Junior “retired.”

Interestingly, Junior didn’t get a lavish sendoff and a gold watch. He was so acerbic and difficult, and alienated so many colleagues and associates that he basically just faded away into obscurity. That’s a tough way for a boss to go.

Tony, on the other hand, is one to reward good performance; lavish dinners, entertainment and bonuses are perks with him. He makes sure that his “corporate culture” is enjoyable for his associates. There is a reason his meetings take place in a strip club: In his all-male world that’s where a lot of guys want to hang out, and Tony is a regular guy.

Dealing with Stress

The central theme of The Sopranos is Tony’s stress-related need for therapy. This aspect of the show can also be significant for today’s managers. Is there still a stigma for getting professional help for mental health issues? In Tony’s case, there is a heavy price to be paid if his business associates find out he’s in therapy: They will smell weakness.

While many organizations pay lip service to supporting stress-management techniques and counseling, on a personal level it is clear that managers are expected “to handle” matters in their personal lives and in their departments.

My guess is that despite the trend toward understanding and helping employees through stress-related problems, having that sort of item in your personnel record is not exactly the best thing in the world to help you get a promotion. The need to cover up these issues or sweep them under the rug can eventually destroy even the most promising careers.

One of the things you have to admire about Tony is his determination to deal with his demons in his psychotherapy sessions. While the sessions are not always successful and Tony is a tough client for Dr. Melfi, he faces a lot of his issues and takes some almost heroic attempts to come to terms with matters of consequence to his family and his business. Lots of managers in high-stress positions would be well served by making the same earnest attempt in counseling sessions.


Perhaps one of the most notable things about Tony’s personal management style that many IT workers will appreciate, particularly those with large departments and lots of politics, is his directness.

Tony has no problem looking anyone in the eye and telling him that he’s screwed up, what the consequences are and what he needs to do to straighten things out.

The family has a carefully constructed hierarchy. Tony is happy to delegate as much as possible to his captains, but he holds them totally accountable. If they meet their projected targets (in terms of drugs, prostitution, gambling and loan sharking), they are well rewarded. On the other hand, when performance wanes, there are definite consequences.

Obviously, in Tony’s business there is no written review record, but all of Tony’s subordinates know how they stand. Even if they’re dead.

One of the most common reasons for a character suddenly “leaving the show” has been his inability to understand his proper place in the organization. Any attempt to do an end run around your manager or to take matters to the top is frowned upon. All of Tony’s managers have their own staffs and are expected to keep them in line. The fewer problems Tony himself has to deal with that can be handled at lower levels, the happier everyone is; woe unto the manager who can’t keep his troops in line.

When a couple of punks knock off the truckload of stolen merchandise from a “made guy” who has paid the required protection, they are severely chastised and are lucky to remain alive—and they know it.

Still, Tony is open to broadening his enterprise’s business model and is in the vanguard of technology when it is practical. One of his first investments, in the early years of the TV show, was a computerized Internet stock scam. This was assigned to younger thugs familiar with the technology who took over a brokerage operation.

That led to problems, however, because the young turks overstepped their bounds. They tried to skim off the top and, even worse, their behavior raised the interest of authorities. Tony is a big believer in keeping a low profile and loyalty.

Company Loyalty

The slightest whiff of misplaced allegiance is enough to raise Tony’s eyebrows, and it can prove fatal to the employee. For the most part, Tony expects the same directness from his cronies as he practices himself. The code is “don’t be a rat”; if you have a problem, deal with it and don’t sneak it under the rug.

This is a credo that many modern managers can learn from, where CYA is widely practiced and all sorts of corporate games are played to protect one’s turf.

For Tony, loyalty works in both directions. He understands human nature. If someone is passed over for promotion or feels mistreated, Tony is keenly aware of it, and its potential consequences. If he needs to make a personnel decision that is painful for a particular manager, he will try to make it up to him with other sources of income or perks. But then, if the guy is still a complainer and negative, he may end up in a landfill.


In typical TV fashion, not a great deal is resolved as the final episode airs. Ironically, Tony can’t convince his most ambitious subordinate, Paulie, to take what he thinks is a choice assignment; Paulie says that he no longer wants to work that hard.

His negotiations with the rival family have not gone well, and he must use trickery to survive. Whether this sort of strategy would work in corporate America is debatable.

At the end, he shows his human side, in visiting a fallen comrade in the hospital. Tony’s ability to show this sort of personal feeling has earned him the fierce loyalty of his colleagues. It’s probably his ultimate legacy as a manager: His passion drove him and in many ways inspired his subordinates. Of course, a little fear didn’t hurt.

Tony is a survivor, and he has guided his “business” through some heavy competitive waters. He has used street smarts and guile to get his way, and much like the original Godfather, his ability to read people, especially adversaries, has probably been his biggest asset. He is willing to take risks, confront his competition, and use all of his instincts and acumen to lead his company of scoundrels to survival, if not ultimate victory.

Tony’s therapy with Dr. Melfi is over and has been discredited by her colleagues, due to a finding that many psychopaths use their sessions to figure out new angles to manipulate their various victims, and not necessarily to get better.

But this brings up the final point: Being a psychopath does not necessarily disqualify one from being a manager or an executive, as Tony’s success proves. But that’s grist for another story—perhaps a review of the current bestseller, The No A****** Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

Finally, if you would like to read a more in-depth study of Tony’s management style, you might enjoy Tony Soprano on Management: Leadership Lessons Inspired By America’s Favorite Mobster, which came out in 2004, when the consequences of many of Tony’s decisions were as yet unknown.