All Business is Personal

The GodfatherThe Godfather is the I-Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom.” — Joe Fox (Tom Hanks’ character in You’ve Got Mail).

I’m sure you’ve noticed that the phrase “nothing personal — just business” has entered the business lexicon over the years since 1972 when the movie adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1962 novel The Godfather. Funny thing is, the movie gives you the wrong impression. I’ve read the novel, and Mario Puzo explains that the phrase is not a sentiment with which Don Corleone would agree. In fact in the novel, only Don Vito Corleone (and later, Don Michael Corleone) seem to properly understand the intersection between what is business and what is personal. The movie places the quote on Michael’s lips, but only if you’d read the book would you understand Micheal’s words to be merely intended to placate his brother Sonny and Tom Hagen, who are separating the two in the discussion about their response to the attempted murder of their father. If you only saw the movie, you’d think this was the philosophy espoused by the Don. It isn’t.

Vito Corleone tells his son Michael that it’s never just business. It’s always personal. This view is perhaps what makes him a good Don, and makes Michael a good Don after him. You want to watch out for people who tell you that it’s nothing personal, just business. At the end of the movie as Micheal is settling “all family scores,” a key piece of dialogue takes place between Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), one of the oldest members of the Family, who has just realized that Michael knows who the traitor is.

Sal Tessio: “Can you get me off the hook, Tom? You know, for old times’ sake?”
Tom Hagen: “Can’t do it, Sally.”
Sal Tessio: “Tell Michael I always liked him. This was strictly business.”
Tom Hagen: “He knows that.”

The difficulty is, Tessio is a traitor, and he’s about to get whacked.

Good business never sweeps aside the personal. Ironically, Joe Fox doesn’t doesn’t get it either. After steamrolling over the bookstore run by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and causing her to close up shop, the following conversation ensues:

Joe Fox: It wasn’t… personal.
Kathleen Kelly: What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?
Joe Fox: Uh, nothing.
Kathleen Kelly: Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.

It’s usually the unscrupulous who try to separate business from anything “personal.” Do that though, and you may find yourself about to get whacked by someone who puts more heart into what they do. If it’s not a business partner, maybe it’ll be your customer.

How personal is your business?