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GP28May03: Mob Wisdom: Managing the Moment in a World at Risk.
Our Neighborhood. Forty years ago, in New York, an aspiring writer or graduate student might have taken an apartment in New York’s Little Italy. Here the price was right, and the South of Houston enclave was immensely safer than other low-rent sections of the city. The Mafia protected its own, running off lesser hoodlums and drug peddlers, quickly getting the lowdown on any interloper. Even those who had not grown up there inadvertently fell under its protection and sway. Today, with insecurity sweeping across the world, you hear of citizens in many nations who are looking for a local boss to shield them from predators of all sorts.
It’s ironic enough that the mob in several haunts around the world is sometimes a local force for peace and stability. Our Gang also renders lessons in kingship you really won’t pick up in vaunted leadership institutes across the developed world that would rather trade in platitudes than wrestle with grim reality. There’s something to be said for street smarts, even the cunning of criminals. Under the most adverse conditions, they act decisively and rapidly to protect and enlarge their dominion.
Very Tight Alignment. In 1976, on a visit to Japan, we stayed at the Hotel Pacific, a bit away from the central business district and its more regimented, monumental hotels. For breakfast one morning we entertained an American publisher who knew the ins and outs of Tokyo. “The Pacific,” he remarked, “A very nice hotel. In fact, I’ve stopped here on several occasions.”
After a night of tippling, he would often repair to the steam room at the Pacific on the way home in order to put his head to rights. On one occasion he met there a group of men with ornate tattoos covering their bodies who were wrapped in a tight discussion. He asked them what they were all about. Very amused at the daring of the intrepid foreigner, they told him they were yakuza, or Japanese gangsters, there to review their sundry “business dealings.”
They were astute enough to hold their meetings “outside of the office,” where they would surely have better perspective on their affairs. Never, we think, should businesses carry on discussions of strategy at the office, because their conclusions will be warped by the matters of the moment.
Like many tribes, they wore distinctive insignia, their special warpaint, that bound them together and made them feel part of something very important. In business, we talk of the importance of alignment, but often lack the visual symbolism and other connective tissue that pulls together people for purposeful action. Around the world, the mob knows how to deck itself out in a distinctive uniform. Close-knit, it can deal with the sundry threats poised by outsiders.
Dominate the Agenda. In 1983 or so, we dined on Bellinis and carpaccio at Harry’s in Venice. (Ostensibly carpaccio was invented at Harry’s in 196l and named after a Renaissance painter famous for his glorious reds). Stuffed to the gills, we strolled down the canal to work off our meal. We decided on a late night drink at the pretty Hotel Danieli, the bar in the rear with its café society music offering a harmonious end to the evening. A half hour into our beverage, the piano player finished and retired to the back. We thought of getting the check.
However, some Mafia bosses strolled in—one from Napoli, one from Venice, and a go-between from Marseilles who was trying to arrange some sort of deal. Quickly enough, the fellow from Naples grew bored with the proceedings, and turned to us for conversation, much to the despair of the other two. Sporting a wolfish grin, he asked us whether we liked Napoli music, or Venetian. Of course, very quickly we said, “Napoli, Napoli!”
“Oh, you like Napoli music. You shall have it.” He sidled off to the kitchen where the piano player was savoring his dinner. In no more than 5 minutes, he dragged the piano player back by the ear and plopped him down on the piano stool. We had an hour of conversation and endless rounds of Napoli music.
Our Napoli chieftain had decided what would be talked about with his companions when. And, since the conversation was going nowhere, he quickly changed the direction of everything. We suspect that, after we left, he won everything he wanted in the negotiations because he had so dominated the intercourse with wit, force, and energy.
Act the Part. In 1987 or so, we were enjoying fabulous squid pasta at Siracusa, surely one of the four or five truly great Italian restaurants we’ve sampled in America. We had been introduced to it by the late John Condon, sometime jazz club owner, smoker of the most aromatic cigars, long-time graphic artist, and always the knowing New Yorker. The young Sicilian brothers who owned it made the pasta and the gelato from scratch, reaping a freshness and flavor not available elsewhere. The twenty or so patrons that evening obviously felt as passionately about the fare as we did. Sad to say, this restaurant has since disappeared.
At first we did not focus on the four gentlemen from New York who took a table in the northeast corner of the room. But almost instantly the crowd melted away, and we found ourselves alone with them. It was then we noticed that the Don, the boss of all bosses, was amongst the quartet, his back to the wall. Intrepid or foolish, we dawdled over our meal, particularly savoring the expresso gelato we had for dessert.
The Don and his party spoke quietly and ate well. We could contrast the Don’s behavior with the covey of young investment bankers of that period whom we would encounter at Lutece and other noted uptown eateries. They were loud and garish with their clients, slushing the best of wines like mouthwash. The Don was extremely understated. The Don acted like a Don, a man of sophistication.
Knowledge Management. In Adventure Capitalist, Jim Rogers recounts his visit to Siberia. In Chita, for a short while, he fell in with a local mafia boss who wondered how Rogers and Paige had avoided laying out bribes to assorted Russian officials. “I know you haven’t paid anybody off, because I checked.”
It’s safe to say that Alexi, the Boss, got the complete scoop on any foreigner who ambled into his domain. He made it his business to get every last detail about anything he cared about. His tentacles reached deep enough to give him the skinny. His efficacy as a local ruler depended on his ability to trace how the levers were pulled throughout Russian officialdom.
Surviving. We wouldn’t want to exaggerate how much mob bosses can teach leaders of government or heads of conglomerates, nor to gloss over in any way their horrific activities.
Yet it is mildly instructive to see the talent they display for surviving and functioning effectively in a dysfunctional world. While paralysis afflicts most of the major developed nations of the world today as well as a host of multinational corporations, local mafias control their turf and reap a bounteous living from the cash flow (asset light) businesses they favor. The Mafia Bosses are much like the old ward political bosses who also had a talent for getting things done. They did so because they were so pervasive a force in the communities in which they dwelled. Ordinary enterprises lack that deep connection to the locales where they are situated. We must ask of any business, then, how well its owners know the local geography.
P.S. “Of course, government in general, any government anywhere, is a thing of exquisite comicality to a discerning mind.”—Joseph Conrad as quoted by John Mortimer.
Copyright 2004 GlobalProvince.com