3 Business Lessons From The Godfather

One of the most successful movies of all time can lend you some valuable business lessons.
December 10, 2011

The 1972 movie The Godfather is without question one of the best motion pictures ever produced. It was the top-grossing movie of that year, won multiple Academy Awards and launched a genre of movies that catapulted the theme of organized crime into the popular culture spotlight (for better or for worse). Before the movie, there was Mario Puzo’s novel of the same title, written in 1969. The creation of the novel and the movie represent some of the most unlikely rags-to-riches stories imaginable. No reasonable person could have thought that either one would actually make it through production. Despite all of the conditions against their chances of success, both the novel and the movie were extraordinary hits, with the former spending nearly a year and half on The New York Times best-seller list and the latter reaching No. 1 status around the world. So what can you learn from The Godfather? Here are some valuable lessons.

Yes, you can succeed even if you are doing it for the money

When Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather, he was 45 years old and drowning in gambling debts. He had written and published several books, which were considered to be of high literary quality but brought in little money. Determined to do things differently, Puzo decided to produce a novel that he thought would sell and make money, literary aesthetic be damned. According to Peter Bart, then vice president of production for Paramount Pictures, Puzo told him very bluntly that “I’m writing this book for the money…This isn’t War and Peace.”

Doing something for the money, or more precisely admitting as such, is frowned upon in popular business culture. Follow your passion, promise the gurus, and the money will come. Clearly, as was Puzo's case, that isn't always true.

Don’t listen to the experts, especially if they know less than you

The making of The Godfather movie could easily be turned into a movie unto itself. It seemed as though the studio executives with decades of experience did everything imaginable to ensure its failure, despite their best efforts to achieve the opposite. The studio did not support Francis Ford Coppola, then a relatively young director, who worked diligently on the screenplay despite knowing that he could be replaced at a moment’s notice with a more famous director selected by the experts. Many of his key decisions, such as hiring Al Pacino for the role of Michael Corleone and Marlon Brando for the role of Vito Corleone, were vehemently fought against by these so-called experts. It turns out, however, that the experts that bet against a broke, middle-aged writer, a no-name director and unbillable actors were wrong. Despite all of their experience, they had forgotten what it was like to be hungry and willing to take creative risks. This hunger is what achieves greatness.

Success doesn’t have to be a fluke; you can do it again

Was The Godfather‘s success a fluke? I don’t think so. The same team that achieved success with The Godfather was able to repeat it on multiple other occasions, including with the sequel to The Godfather. Mario Puzo went on to write critically-acclaimed (and financially-successful) novels while Francis Ford Coppola became one of the premier directors of his generation. As for the actors, there is no need to even mention the subsequent career trajectories of Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan.

Success doesn’t follow a set pattern. While there are general lessons and established paths that we should take into consideration, entrepreneurial success is about the individual creating their own path to success. Vito Corleone understood this, as did Puzo and Coppola. Capice?