When he wasn’t shooting some hot-head motorist over a parking spot, shoving some bad-luck gambler into a toilet so’s he wouldn’t jinx his own action, or—well, this was justified—smashing open the skull of some loud-mouthed biker with the business end of a Louisville Slugger, Sonny LoSpecchio was a heck of a nice guy.
A real paisan.
At least that’s what a lot of people thought.
Sonny, played by actor Chazz Palminteri, is the local mafia boss in the 1993 film A Bronx Tale. When you watch the movie or the play it was adapted from, or the Broadway musical adapted from both, you see a man who rules the Italian-American neighborhood of Fordham with an iron fist and an unblinking eye. You see a man who never lends anyone his car, lest it come back with a bomb strapped to the engine. You see a man who instructs an up-and-coming gangster who’s in love for the first time to dump his girlfriend—no questions, no quarter—if she doesn’t lean over and unlock the driver’s door after he lets her in on the passenger side.
Which, come to think of it, is actually a pretty solid rule of thumb.
But you also see something else: a dapper-dressed, high-foreheaded, hand-talking man playing stickball with neighborhood folks. Folks that always protect him whenever the heat gets too hot. Hot because Sonny’s in that kind of business. Others, the residents of his domain, would never turn on him or turn him in.
Sonny is a man who is either loved or feared.
But never crossed.
Once, when Sonny is walking and talking with that same lovelorn kid from the neighborhood, he reveals the key, the absolute key to being the master of all he surveys.
He surveys not from far, far away. But from up close.
“You ever hear of Machiavelli?” Sonny asks.
“Who?” says the young man, his head tilted in confusion, like a dog when you make a high-pitched sound.
“Machiavelli. He’s a famous writer from 500 years ago,” Sonny says.
“‘Availability.’ That’s what he always said.”
Sonny explains to his protégé that, although he’s wealthy enough to live anywhere he wants, inside or outside the Bronx, he stays right there on Belmont Avenue. His home is among the dive bars. Among the fruit carts. Among the shoe-repair shops. Among the teenage hoodlums and hoodrats.
“Availability,” he says. “I want to stay close to everything. Because being on the spot, I can see trouble immediately. Trouble is like a cancer; you’ve got to get it early. If you don’t get it early, it gets too big and it kills you. That’s why you’ve got to cut it out.
Sì, Sonny, sì.
Let’s talk about you. If you’re running a company or a division or a department or a team or a—well, whatever’s smaller than a team and bigger than just yourself—you have to make yourself available. Available, accessible, approachable. And we’re not talking that, “Hey, my door is always open” tripe. Really? It’s always open? Maybe if you closed it once in a while, you’d get more work done.
We are instead talking about extricating yourself from that office in order to mix and mingle with the proletariat, so to speak. You know, the ones that actually do all the work.
Some executives have been executives so long, they forget what it’s like to not be an executive. They forget being a frontline employee or a supervisor and having the boss—the big boss—came by to say hi. Maybe he or she asked how your family was doing or what project you were working on. Maybe she or he gave a little insight into the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead for the entire organization. Maybe it was just small talk, followed by a shake of the hand or a pat on the back.
They remember it feeling pretty darn good.
Because it does. When people think the company cares about them, they will run through walls. When they don’t, meh, they won’t even break a nail.
Here’s an easy rule of thumb to follow: budget at least an hour a week to chit and chat with the people who work for you. That’s only a dozen minutes per day. You probably burn twice as much time checking your Facebook feed.
- That was a joke.
It’s more like 10 times as much.
Being accessible is not only good for the team, it’s good for the leader as well. You’d be surprised what you can learn on one of these little perambulations through the nooks and crannies of an organization. Who’s working hard and who’s hardly working. Who’s FILO (first-in-last-out) and who’s LIFO (last-in-first-out). Who are the heroes and who are the zeroes.
Late in the film, Sonny offers another quotable quote on the importance of localized leadership. There is no substitute for face time with the people. Just to provide more impactful context, we have done the old Microsoft Word find-and-replace “neighborhood” with “company” to his quote.
“The people in this company that see me every day, that are on my side, they feel safe,” Sonny says. “Because they know I’m close. But the people (that aren’t on my side), they think twice, because they know I’m close.”
Hmmmm. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Sounds like something Michael Corleone would say. Or Niccolo Machiavelli before him. Or Sun Tzu before all of them.
Or . . . OK, you get the point.
Hey, no matter who plagiarized whom, it’s still good advice. As the boss, when in doubt, make sure you get out and about. It’s good for you and great for them.