It’s been 45 years since audience’s first met the Corleone family on the big screen. In that time, there are certain moments that seem to stick: Clemenza’s (Richard S. Castellano) cooking lesson, Don Vito’s (Marlon Brando) persuasive offering, and Michael’s (Al Pacino) evaporating innocence. Of course, no one moment stands out quite like the epic, violent death of Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone (James Caan). But Sonny, like the rest of his Corleone kin, is so much more than his most memorable moment.
A man famous for his temper, Sonny, the eldest Corleone son, briefly took over as Don after his father was almost killed during a botched assassination attempt. Without warning, it was up to Sonny to take the reins of the family and guide them through the uncertainty of a full-scale gang war. While he lacked the cool, collected demeanor of his father, Sonny had a style of leadership that was all his own — for better or worse. For those moments when you’ve got to step up and take charge, let these Sonny Corleone quotes help guide you.
“Hey, whaddya gonna do, nice college boy? Didn’t want to get mixed up in the family business?”
When taking charge of any situation, you have to know who’s qualified to do the right job. Like when his kid brother, Michael proposes he step up to help solve a family problem, Sonny mocks his proposition while trying to keep him from getting in over his head. Sure, Sonny had people more qualified at his disposal, but Michael kept calmly persisting, causing Sonny to change his mind — albeit reluctantly.
Stepping up requires you to not only trust your instincts but to be flexible enough to change your mind under the right circumstance. Think of it as the walking while chewing gum aspect of leadership.
“Hey Michael, c’mere. Let me look at you. You look beautiful, just beautiful, you’re gorgeous.”
Keeping morale going is a key factor in confident leadership, and after Michael gets a little too cross-wise with a corrupt police chief, he gets a right to the face. But rather than let his brother get taken down over his new bruised-up look, he tries to have a little fun with him while beaming with pride.
Remember, stepping up isn’t just about making the big decisions, it’s about the little moments of levity to help make everyone feel better in the meantime.
“Tom, this is business and this man is taking it very, very personal.”
In any situation, leading takes a certain degree of compartmentalization. You have to be swift and decisive, while at the same time be careful not to let your feelings get in the way. Despite his hot-headed attitude, Sonny seems to be aware of this — even if he has trouble adhering to it himself.
Nonetheless, it’s important to make your decisions with a clear head and without any emotions there to cloud your judgment. Otherwise, it can often lead to a poor decision with far-reaching repercussions.
“Hey, listen, I want somebody good — and I mean very good — to plant that gun.”
A simple line that invokes many of the qualities of good leadership. With their plan about to unfold, Sonny takes extra care making sure all the pieces are in place. And he does it with his trademark panache. This is more than just Sonny sending his kid brother into the action, but a situation where the fate of the whole family depends on the outcome.
When decisions have this much riding on them, you don’t want to play off their profound importance, but you do need to exude a kind of confident nonchalance to help everyone breathe a little easier in the meantime.
“They hit us, so… we hit back.”
Stepping up doesn’t just involve making decisions, you’ve gotta know how to react to the ever-changing flow of circumstances. Once the Corleone’s war got underway, Sonny pensively explained to his father that he’d decided to kill a rival gangster as retaliation. But when it’s your turn at the top, the decisions you have to make aren’t always going to be easy, as Sonny soon realizes.
“You… touch… my sister again, I’ll kill you.”
The lesson here is pretty simple, and it’s one that was in Sonny’s DNA: never go against the family. Sonny’s brother-in-law, Carlo, was a punk who liked to punch Sonny’s sister Connie. When he found out about it, Sonny flew into a rage, found Carlo in the street, and beat him bloody with the aid of anything he could get his hands on — a garbage can, the lid, Carlo’s shoe. In the end, Sonny pays a price after Carlo betrays the family, but you can’t let that deter you from standing up for the one’s you love. Just don’t go so far as to commit assault while doing it.
“Not this time, Consigliere! No more meetings! No more discussions! No more Sollozzo tricks!”
No matter how high up the ladder you climb in life, you’re only as good as the people advising you. When Sonny starts to feel overwhelmed by the war he so hastily started, he lashes out at Tom Hagen, the family’s consigliere. However, there’s a double-edged sword here: while it’s clear that you need to rely on your advisors, it’s wholly unwise to blame them for your mistakes — which is a lesson that Sonny never quite grasps during his time as Don.
Still, there’s something to be said for being the kind of leader who’s willing drawing a line in the sand and forcefully move forward with nothing more than a willingness to take responsibility for the outcome… whatever it may be.
Unfortunately for Sonny, that outcome turns out to be… not good. Here’s hoping you have better luck.
In celebration of the 45th anniversary, new editions of The Godfather and Godfather II are available on DVD and Blu-Ray.