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Contrasting Leadership in The Godfather

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

One of the promotional images of The Godfather with Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando)

One of the promotional images of The Godfather with Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando)

Vito vs. Michael Corelone

Vito Corleone is loved and respected more than Michael because Vito conducts himself with dignity and overtures of friendship whereas his son operates only in terms of cunning and tactics and is ultimately alienated. Michael may be a more efficient Don, but Vito, by relying on relationships, is ultimately more respected by other characters and the audience.

“I Believe in America”

Vito Corleone speaks constantly of friendship. In the opening of The Godfather, when Bonasera is making his entreaty for revenge, Vito says, “You never wanted my friendship [...] You didn’t need a friend like me.” He becomes offended when Bonasera offers him money to harm the men that attacked his daughter. Only when Bonasera says, “Be my friend,” does Vito relent, agree to help, and make the statement, “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you for a favor.” This opening shows the audience exactly how Vito operates. Instead of engaging in strictly mercenary haggling or open displays of authority, he invites other people to partake in his power, providing protection or influence or retribution for favors that he may or may not ask for later. Vito roots the strength of his organization in trust and friendship or relationships that at least have the veneer of such.

With his opening of The Godfather: Part 2, Michael displays an utter lack of social tact or ability to treat others with his insult to Pentangeli and his threats to Senator Geary. It is evident he is missing his father’s greatest strength as he lets Pentangeli leave feeling hurt and dishonored and by not turning the senator from an enemy into a friend. When Tom Hagen later helps Senator Geary, he takes a page from Vito’s playbook and talks of friendship instead of making threats or lording his power over the man. It is difficult to see Michael doing the same sort of thing given his behavior in the position of leadership.

The terminally chill Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in a still from The Godfather - The Coppola Restoration Giftset

The terminally chill Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in a still from The Godfather - The Coppola Restoration Giftset

An Offer He Can't Refuse

Favors are the only true currency for Vito. As Tom explains, the Godfather “never asks for a second favor when he’s been refused a first.” Money cannot obtain security; only trust can do that. It is with this reasoning that Vito rejects Sollozzo’s desire for a partnership in running drugs. To accept it would risk Vito’s friendship with the politicians and judges who owe him favors. It is these relationships that keep his family and other illicit businesses safe, and no amount of money is worth risking. Sollozzo only speaks about “helping the family” after he’s used violence. It is worth noticing how these favors essentially save Vito’s life and protect his son. Michael comes into the family business out of love and concern for his father, leaving Kay in order to visit him in the hospital. Enzo, coming to thank the Don for helping with his immigration, is also there, and with Michael, manages to frighten away the assassins who were coming to murder Vito. When Michael is forced to seek sanctuary in Sicily, Dom Tommasino does all he can to protect him and keep him well because Tommasino is returning a favor. Vito saved Tomassino after he was shot while escaping from the revenge-killing of old Don Ciccio. Vito could have left him behind to die; he could have made anyone in Sicily rich with his Genco Pura Olive Oil. Instead, Vito saved Tommasino and stuck with him, weaving a bond stronger than money or threats could create.

In the cases of Don Fanucci and Don Ciccio, Vito kills them after witnessing them use fear and violence. He uses the tactic of making friends and collecting favors by doing favors to insulate himself and his family from danger. Friendship and favors gain him respect and stability, much how Clemenza rewards his friendship when Vito does the favor of hiding his guns. When they get squeezed by Fanucci, Vito tells Tessio and Clemenza that he’ll settle the whole situation for almost no money, but says, “Just remember I did you a favor.” With this favor, Vito’s leadership is established with trust and the recollection of a favored owed, which proves stronger than fear of Fanucci. Following this, favors become his trade. Vito helps Miss Colombo stay in her apartment even though she can be of no obvious help to him. Nonetheless, he uses his reputation to pressure the landlord to ask around the neighborhood about him and how “They’ll tell you I know how to return a favor for a favor.” Helping Miss Colombo isn’t an act of charity; it makes Vito’s name ring out and establishes him as a man who people turn to in order to take care of their problems.

Young Vito Corleone (Robert de Niro) in The Godfather: Part 2

Young Vito Corleone (Robert de Niro) in The Godfather: Part 2

A Friend in Need

To Vito everyone can be a friend. He calls Johnny Fontane, his godson, a friend as easily as he calls Clemenza and Luca Brasi friends. It is this friendship that keeps them close and loyal where money and ruthlessness cannot. Luca is shown loyalty, so he pledges loyalty. Similarly, Vito took in Tom Hagen and raised him up, so Tom earns a law degree and works tirelessly on the behalf of his adoptive father. This quality of earning trust and respect by showing it is something Michael does not use. He uses manipulation and intimidation to get his way, and because he fears disloyalty and treachery he ultimately creates it with his secrecy and paranoia. When pressed by Clemeza for more freedom and understanding, Vito says, “Be a friend to Michael and do as he says.” Vito knows people, how to persuade them, and keep them on his side with favors and a desire for mutual respect.

A word Vito almost never uses is “enemy,” but Michael sees enemies everywhere. When Tom balks at the depth and scale of Michael's revenge plots, he questions if his brother will only be happy once he wipes everyone out, to which Michael, without irony, responds, “I don’t feel I have to wipe everyone out [...] just my enemies.” Where Vito saw opportunities to gain favors, Michael only expects treachery, and in a way, commends Tessio’s attempt at betrayal, saying, “It’s the smart move. Tessio was always smarter.” Tom confesses he thought Clemenza might betray them, but Clemenza’s loyalty is born in affection and friendship for Vito and the whole Corleone family. In a similar instance, Michael’s inability to be gracious to Moe Greene ensures their dispute must be resolved with violence. Michael seems to have more in common with Hyman Roth who is deceitful and committed to making money and elaborate revenge plots. To protect himself from Pentangeli’s testimony, Michael creates an implicit, public threat to the man’s brother. While this act does get the desired result in Pentangeli perjuring himself, the whole situation would have been unnecessary if Michael had kept Pentangeli closer as a friend with trust and favors as his father would have done. Instead, his secrecy and plotting only lead Pentangeli into a mistrust that he would never have felt for Vito. Again, this situation is only truly resolved by Tom who, using roundabout, historical examples, entreats Pentangeli to end his own life, saying it would be a favor and that Pentangeli’s family would be forgiven and looked after in return for such a favor.

Don Vito and his family meeting with Sollozzo

Don Vito and his family meeting with Sollozzo

Never Go Against the Family

At the meeting of the five families, Vito sounds reasonable and speaks repeatedly of peace and friendship. He asks everyone, “When did I ever refuse an accommodation?” The whole history of his behavior has been colored by a willingness to negotiate. He voices his objections to the whole nature of drug trafficking and how it will jeopardize their futures, but if he can end the war and have Michael returned to him, Vito will forego vendetta and give what aid he can. Only in regards to the future of his son does Vito speak of anything other than being amicable. To bring Michael back, he’ll risk conflict but not over business or money. Vito never has to say he does everything for his family because it is apparent in the way he carries himself and provides for their needs.

Michael’s paranoia alienates his friends and family, the very people he claims to want to protect. Because he thinks of Fredo as weak and useless, he does not trust him, meaning Fredo has to seek validation outside the family, ultimately betraying Michael. In his attempt to defend himself, Fredo says, “You’re my kid brother, and you take care of me. Didn’t you ever think of that?” Because Fredo’s feelings of inadequacy went unresolved it brought more problems than if Michael had treated him with respect. As his thirst for secrecy and unattainable security drive him forward, Michael fears treachery everywhere and creates it where it did not exist previously, as is the case with Pentangeli. Vito’s family is real—it is people and relationships. For Michael, family is an abstraction, and he uses it and the idea of protecting it to justify his horrific deeds. Tom is family, and Michael manipulates and bullies him. Connie is family, and Michael widows her and does everything he can to control her actions. Fredo is family, and Michael lures him into a fall sense of security to have him murdered. Where Vito held his family together with love and respect, Michael essentially forces Connie and Fredo to return out of fear following the death of their mother.

Michael is not a fool, and he clearly has doubts. Going to his mother and questioning her about how Vito could sacrifice so much to protect his family, Michael asks, “But in being strong for his family could he lose it?” To which his mother replies, “You can never lose your family.” It is a statement Michael both longs for and dreads. He cannot escape his family or the obligation he feels to it, but the means by which he attempts to protect it cost him everything. The family itself is sacrificed to his abstract idea of the family, and his relationships with his wife and brothers and sister and daughter are all destroyed by it. In many ways, Michael is a tragic character who in trying to save what he cares about most dooms it with his own deeds.

Puckish Rogue

Vito is seen at times publicly enjoying himself: dancing at his daughter’s wedding, chatting in the streets as he buys fruit, laughing in the company of others, drinking with friends and family members and so on. Michael, as Don, looks utterly joyless. He almost never drinks, appears ill-at-ease in public, rarely interacts with his own children and is impenetrably cold and distant. Vito’s children look up to him and respect him, but Michael’s children are remote and fearful.

Michael knows how to be human. In Sicily he deports himself with politeness and tact, resulting in marriage to Apollonia and life that appears reasonable and pleasant. Following Apollonia’s death, Michael’s previous conduct is replaced by deceit and an unconscionable willingness to double-cross anyone to get his way. His relationship with Kay is full of secrecy and lies that spill over from him to her so that their marriage sours and she comes to hate him. She is, of course, always having a door closed in her face, shutting her out from the real-life of her husband, ensuring she can never really know him. It does Michael no good with the audience that the one time he allows her to ask about his business he lies to her face. Everyone watching knows better.

A Man Who Doesn’t Spend Time with His Family Can Never Be a Real Man

Even as he conducts business, Vito is surrounded by life. During Connie’s wedding, children run in and out of his office even as Vito meets with guests looking for favors. The house always seems full, and frequently babies are crying, signifying a sense of vitality even though Vito is an old man. Aside from festivities in his first scene that he only deals with tangentially, Michael is perpetually alone, cut off from his own family. His house has almost no sounds of life, and especially following his trouble in Cuba, Michael withdraws more and more until he’s often the only person left in the frame as is the case with Fredo’s murder, in the flashback to his father’s birthday at the start of World War Two, and the end of The Godfather: Part 2. Should any additional evidence be needed to contrast these two characters, examine their final moments: Vito dies in his home, laughing and playing with his grandson. Michael dies alone.

Speak Softly Love

Vito is an unapologetic criminal, but because he carries himself with class and a measure of integrity the audience is sympathetic to him even when watching him perform horrible deeds like murder. Michael, once he takes over the leadership, is never witnessed committing evil acts, but because he plans and enacts them so bloodlessly and without regard for the human ties that hold people together, the audience is disgusted by him and pities the monster he has become.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Seth Tomko


Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on September 02, 2017:

I'm glad you found the article both interesting and useful, yashodhara.

The Goddess of Abundance on September 01, 2017:

This article is amazing.

Exactly what I needed for my assignment. :)