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A Succession Planning Offering You Can’t Refuse: Surprising HR Lessons from The Godfather

While not a conventional source of inspiration for human resources (HR) professionals, the Godfather movie series can provide a rich narrative that is applicable to organizational behavior. For example, succession planning plays a pivotal role in the series, shaping the narrative and demonstrating the complexities and importance of ensuring leadership continuity in any organization or entity, regardless of its nature. In the Corleone family, Vito Corleone, the patriarch, initially does not see his son Michael as his successor. Michael, a World War II hero who initially wants nothing to do with the family’s criminal activities, is seen as the least likely to take up the mantle. The intended successor is Sonny, Vito’s eldest son, who is more involved in the family’s operations. However, Sonny’s impulsive nature and eventual assassination leave the family in a vulnerable position.

Photo: Getty/Paramount

The critical moment of unplanned succession occurs when Vito is severely wounded in an assassination attempt, and the family’s leadership is in jeopardy. This event thrusts Michael into a position of responsibility, highlighting the importance of having a plan for unexpected leadership transitions. Michael’s evolution from a reluctant outsider to the formidable leader of the family showcases the necessity of preparing all potential successors, even those who may not seem likely candidates initially.

The transition of power from Vito to Michael also underscores the importance of preparing successors not just in terms of skill and knowledge, but also by ensuring they have a strong support network and the loyalty of key stakeholders. Michael’s eventual assumption of power is marked by significant challenges, including dealing with adversaries and consolidating his position within the family and its operations. The Godfather series, through its depiction of the leadership transition process within the Corleone family, demonstrates the four (4) critical aspects of succession planning:

  • Identifying and preparing potential successors: It is crucial to recognize and develop the capabilities of all possible successors, not just the obvious choices.
  • Dealing with unplanned successions: Organizations must be prepared for sudden leadership vacancies due to unforeseen circumstances, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive succession plan.
  • Ensuring smooth transitions: A successful transition requires more than just handing over control; it involves preparing the successor to deal with internal and external challenges effectively.
  • The role of leadership qualities: Succession planning is not solely about operational skills but also involves leadership qualities such as decision-making, strategic thinking, and the ability to earn loyalty and respect.

While the context of the Corleone family is unique, the lessons on succession planning are applicable to any organization. Ensuring the continuity of leadership through comprehensive planning, preparation, and support mechanisms is crucial for long-term stability and success. It is crucial, however, to interpret these lessons within the ethical and legal frameworks that govern legitimate businesses and HR practices.

If you want additional insights, the Human Capital Institute (HCI) Succession Planning & Talent Development certification program is designed to help you align your organization’s succession planning and talent development efforts with your business strategy using a practical but compelling framework to guide your team’s efforts. Please visit our course website and sign up today!

Luke Viera is a Research Analyst at the Human Capital Institute. Along with a master’s degree in industrial-organizational psychology from George Mason University, he has twenty years of experience in the areas of market research, testing/measurement, survey methodology, and statistics. Throughout this time, he has designed and managed research projects for government and private-sector clients, such as the Department of Defense (DoD), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), American Nurses Association (ANA), Hewlett-Packard (HP), and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC). He has presented his work at national and international conferences of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP). His work has also been published in refereed, scholarly journals such as Survey Practice and Personnel Psychology.

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