Mafia Leadership Tips the Real Deal: Forbes

From Forbes:

When it comes to leadership role models, Don Corleone doesn’t immediately spring to mind. But many bosses, knowingly or not, subscribe to his philosophy of keeping friends close and enemies closer.

Psychologists Nicole Mead and Jon Maner ran a series of experiments to unpick this counter-intuitive tendency. They thought that when leaders are threatened by an up-and-coming rival, instead of backing off and giving the opponent the chance to shine, they move closer so that they’re better positioned to monitor and control the would-be usurper.

They were right. When leaders in their experiment were in an unstable position (told that their role was dependent on performance) and confronted with a threatening opponent they, literally, moved closer to the threat, by placing their chair on average 15 inches closer. Leaders who valued their power the most moved closest. The more threatened they felt, the closer they wanted to be.

Remarkably, this happened even when working closely was detrimental to the team. When threatened leaders were told that working in separate rooms might enhance their team’s performance, they still wanted their partner in the same room. Not once did the other team member express a desire for power. Simply possessing a valuable skill was enough for leaders to perceive them as a threat.

So, what can we take practically from this research?

Firstly, status-driven leaders may find themselves micromanaging their talent, reducing their autonomy in case they outshine the boss. Some managers are loath to mentor or coach those with potential – ‘what happens if they get so good that they take my job?’. While this Machiavellian control might have some short term gain, in the long term top talent will seek the freedom they crave elsewhere. Not to mention the missed opportunities to the team and organisation of preventing skilled people from performing at their peak.

Secondly, this research reminds me of a conversation I was having with a global leader in a US-headquartered Fortune-500 company a couple of weeks ago. He was lamenting the amount of travel he was having to do, particularly as he is spending more of his time in Asia than in the USA. I asked why he didn’t move to the UK (easier for time zones with Asia) or base himself in Asia for the next couple of years. His response: ‘The board want to keep me close.’ Whilst this may be detrimental for performance – the proximity mattered.

A final thought is how leaders of start-ups deal with their competitors, whom they are likely to bump into at conferences, exhibitions and in client’s offices. Whilst keeping an eye on the competitor terrain is clearly useful, often too much time is spent obsessing over what alternatives might be up to – finding the balance between gaining strategic advantage and purposeless curiosity is a fine one.
‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ is attributed to Vito Corleone.  It’s likely that the original comes from Machiavelli's The Prince.  
Thankfully, there was no mention in the research of whether a skillfully-placed horse’s head acted as a good motivation tool, but Mead and Maner found one way to get leaders to relax their grip: introduce a shared rival. When there was competition, leaders prioritised success over personal power and saw their partner as an ally rather than a threat. When it comes to beating the competition, innovation, and building a leadership pipeline, perhaps leaders should remind themselves that a skilled subordinate is an aide not an adversary, and give them some space. So it seems that a second mafia mantra is worth bearing in mind: My enemies’ enemy is my friend.


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