The Sopranos is an HBO series about a fictionalized New Jersey Italian-American mobster named Tony Soprano. If you’ve watched the series, you don’t need further introduction.
If you haven’t watched it, you should put it on your watch list. The Sopranos is widely considered among the most influential television series of all time, having won Primetime Emmy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Directors Guild of America Awards, Producers Guild of America Awards, Television Critics Association Awards, and more. For better or worse, some 25 years on the series remains an enduring cultural mirror.
Image Credit: HBO.com
I grew up in north Jersey cities along the highway corridor shown in the introduction of each episode, beginning with Newark and Elizabeth then some westerly towns along Route 22. These are not the pretty parts of Jersey, but it was home and I was proud of it. I also grew up with much of the culture and values depicted in the show. Years before the series debuted, us grammar school kids regularly threatened to whack each other, not really understanding what we were parroting, and as teenagers we understood that organized crime was a potential career option.
Although Tony Soprano and the rest of the characters are fictionalized, the show's writers and consultants were not. They were all real people with life experiences, perspectives and attitudes reflected in the scripts. These collective experiences, perspectives and attitudes were reflected in the characters’ ethics, words, and actions, even if exaggerated around violence and sex. I grew up hearing the same coarse language as in the show so I think the writers got that part right. I assume the show's level of violence and sex in organized crime is exaggerated but I don’t know. Bottom line, the show has long mirrored, reinforced, influenced, and even shaped our cultural standards and ethics.
I’m currently re-watching the series and was struck by a scene that speaks to a universal business model. Bluntly – in seven seconds to be exact – Tony reminds his captains and everyone watching of that model. Here’s the link to view a piece of that scene on YouTube. If you’re not a place to watch it, or you want most of the dialogue for context, here you go:
Tony – “I want to know why there’s zero growths in this family's receipts. Where's the f**king money? You're supposed to be earners, that's why you got the top tier position. So each one of you, go out to your people on the street, crack open some f**king heads, create some f**king earners out there. … Oh, nobody knows what the f**k I’m talking about?”
Captain – “We hear ya Tony.” …
Tony – “This thing [our business model] is a pyramid. Since time immemorial, s**t runs downhill money goes up. It's that simple. I should not have to be coming here, hat in my hand, reminding you about your duty to that man [Junior, the family boss (CEO)]. And I don't wanna hear about the f**king economy either. I don't wanna hear it. … Now that's it. That's all I gotta say. Frankly I'm depressed and ashamed.”
Even if Tony’s dialogue is fictionalized, I can attest to being in real life business meetings where the leader’s tone and message were not far off. More importantly, the core model of a pyramid system where s**t flows downhill and money flows up was present; it was just whitewashed when it was pitched to me and my co-workers.
My observation is that Tony Soprano type leaders are dying off in American capitalism and rarely at the helm of respected organizations. But even respected organizations can be infected with that kind of model. That model could be in-your-face and you’re able to easily point to it or it could be subtle with only the occasional sighting. If your organization truly isn't infected with this model then you’re golden and be grateful!
But if Tony Soprano is describing a model familiar to you in your organization, then you’re in a plantation system and you’re in trouble. Even and ultimately, I observe, if you're the Tony Soprano of your organization. The question becomes: “Can we step away from this model and improve this organization with a different ethic?” The short answer is “yes” because our ethics are a choice and from our choices flow our actions and our results. The follow on questions are: "Are you willing?" and "If not, why not?"
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