What are the 6 types of power in the Godfather?
Power, an important theme in the Godfather movies, can be analyzed in 6 ways using the French and Raven study on how humans build social power. The 6 types of power are Legitimate, Informational, Coercive, Reward, Expert, and Referent power.
In this post we are going to continue to analyze what made the Godfather (Michael Corleone) powerful. Instead of making a fool of ourselves by copying how our favorite characters stand, talk, move, and act in an effort to become more powerful, we will be using a study by two scientists named french and raven to show you 6 ways humans build power. By the end of the video you will have seen 5 practical examples of how to increase power from Michael’s life, and one way where he almost completely failed.
This blunder led to an assassination attempt, betrayal, a divorce, an aborted child, isolation, disrespect, a loss of power, and more. It is very likely that you’ve been making this mistake in your climb to power. So do you know what his biggest failure was? Comment below with your best guess, and keep listening to find out more.
Table of Contents
1. Legitimate Power
Let’s jump right into one type of power base called Legitimate power. Legitimate power typically comes when social or moral norms say we are obligated to listen to a person because of their position of authority. This person typically holds characteristics that mean they can prescribe behavior like age, experience, intelligence, or position in the social hierarchical structure.
Michael builds his legitimate power by making sure he receives his father’s support to become the next family don. He protects his father physically. He makes sure to never outshine the master by asking for his father’s feedback and ideas. Michael intuitively knows that his climb to power will be faster if his father supports him.
Michael is ruthless and strategic enough that he probably could have gone and built his own family business like his father, if he wanted. However, Michael has a small enough ego to realize the value of all the hard work his father has put into the business. He realizes all he has to do is trade a bit of humility and patience for decades worth of hard work. Listening to and respecting his father builds his legitimate power.
Often children are born with many advantages given to them by their parents. These could be things like being born into a growing and stable country, having good connections, being well educated, or even having a family business they can take over. However, many people’s egos cause them to underestimate how important or difficult their predecessor’s contributions to their lives have been. One way to build your legitimate power is to think about the natural advantages your family or circumstances has given you and to try to find a way to leverage them as best as possible so you can speed up your path to power.
To increase your legitimate power, find a leader who has a need you can fulfill. Michael filled Vito’s need for respect and legacy. Once you’ve built your leverage by fulfilling their needs, persuade them to legitimize you. Done correctly, you can save yourself years of hard work.
We see the result of Michael leveraging his father’s hard work as Michael is able to develop his next source of power.
2. Information Power
As Michael treats his father with respect, his father reciprocates by first legitimizing Michael as the future don of the family, and by second giving him information power. This is one of the 6 types of power in the Godfather movies. Information power is the ability to influence outcomes by sharing or withholding information that leads a target to take certain actions. Michael’s actions grant him two very important pieces of information from Vito.
First, Michael learns how the passing of the don works. Among other things, he learns that when his father dies, certain characters will stop listening to him. Some will even turn against him. Michael uses this information to form a realistic plan that will allow the family business to continue to thrive despite many mob bosses refusing to cooperate.
Second, Vito gives Michael a method for knowing who is going to betray him. He learns that the person will make their move once Vito is dead. This turncoat will do it by trying to set up a meeting on their territory with a rival mob boss. The meeting will be a trap and Michael will be assasinated. This information power allows Michael to avoid the trap and to eliminate the mole within his organization.
So how can you cultivate information power? One way is to form relationships with key individuals. This can tip you off to pivotal events in the social group or company. Knowing about these events before others is the essence of information power. Position yourself by people who are talkers and in situations wher information is first discovered. Find a way to obscure or dilute the information before others receive it.
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3. Coercive Power
But Michael doesn’t only rely on Legitimate and Informational power. One of his more impressive displays of power, just like his father, is in his development and use of coercive power. Coercive power is the ability to influence based on violence or the threat of violence.
We see this source come into play as Michael begins his plan to secure power once his father is dead. We learned earlier that many of the other mob bosses wouldn’t respect Michael once his father passed away. Michael planned to use coercive power to deal with this issue, but it is how he used it that is impressive.
In one scene, Michael is becoming a godfather to his sister’s child. As he is being forgiven for his sins and renouncing evil, his thugs carry out targeted hits on the leaders that were going to betray and oppose him. This is an amazing character development moment in the movie because it shows that Michael is willing to dispose of all moral systems in order to ruthlessly destroy his enemies totally. It prefigures the type of mob boss he will become.
Michael’s use of coercive power is pretty obvious here. People will listen to him because of how brutal and physically threatening his men are. But even more impressively is the way he maximizes the effect of the coercive power while minimizing how many resources he expends. Instead of just bluntly attacking all opposing groups, he strikes the leaders with a few highly skilled hitmen. By killing the leaders of the opposing mob groups, Michael destroys his opposition without sending his family into an all out war. This is how you deal with people once you know they have incentives to attack or fight against you. You crush your enemies all at once with a single tactical attack where they are weakest.
But how is he able to so effectively carry out these hits? He effectively used the coercive power because his spies were able to bring him information about where those men were most vulnerable and where they would be on that day. Thus his information power allowed him to plan out and make his coercive power more potent.
Perhaps you have noticed by now that each power source seems to be built or supported by the others in what amounts to an almost symbiotic relationship. It is like the saying in economics that capital goes to capital. This is one of Michael’s keys to power. He is constantly looking for the most efficient use of any advantage he has to continue to build another power source.
So how can you increase your coercive power? Well last time we mentioned working out and practicing fighting. Well there is another way. You can increase the threat of violence by associating with dangerous people or crafting a reputation for brutality. This can be as simple as making blunt comments to people, or as complicated as using psychologically targeted insults. If you decide this strategy is optimal for your situation, focus on doing anything that will create an image of a person who people shouldn’t mess with. But make sure being feared is what is the tactically optimal move.
4. Reward Power
We see another way Michael builds his power, called reward power. It is one of the 6 types of power shown in teh Godfather. Reward power is when you give people things like money for doing your bidding. It is one of the 6 types of power shown in the Godfather movies.
The second movie opens with a scene in beautiful Tahoe where Michael is throwing a party. During this party he has many politicians and other famous people get up and give speeches. This is evidence that Michael understands how valuable creating compelling spectacles can be.
In fact if you throw a good enough party, just being on the guest list can be a reward in itself. Being part of a restricted social group means you haven been vetted as someone useful and influential. It means other people will give you the time of day. Not only does Michael control who gets invited and who gets to speak to him, but he also selects who is able to give speeches on stage. Thus he uses his money to throw a party where people are rewarded to varying degrees for being his friends.
To develop this power create or discover a group that you can control. Create barriers and other elements that make the group exclusive. You might have to spend money and time to make the group enticing at the beginning, but eventually the ability to grant membership in this group will itself give you power.
5. Expert Power
Let’s move on to the last impressive way Michael builds his power. Expert power typically comes from understanding a topic better than everyone else, like a doctor. It is one of the 6 types of power sources. But it isn’t limited to jobs that require tons of schooling. Michael and his father Vito both are extremely skilled at understanding people. This understanding allows them to efficiently use people to the maximum degree before eliminating them. Because of how efficient they are at using people, they regularly win at battles of strategy. This makes people respect their plans, which builds their expert power. Here is one quick example.
Michael always suspected Carlo for his involvement in Sonny’s death. How did the men know the exact right time Sonny would be going down the highway? How were all those men in such a random location with serious guns ready to go?
Michael could have eliminated Carlo immediately and left his sister without a husband. However there were a few disadvantages. First, it looked bad in their Catholic society to have a sister without a husband. This would have slightly hurt his legitimate power. Second, he could use Carlo’s behavior to his advantage. Knowing Carlo was at least occasionally sending information to the opposing families, he could promote Carlo and feed him bad information to confuse the others.
Carlo would either be happy about the fake promotion and stop ratting temporarily, or he would share the fake information that would confuse the other families. The movie hints at this but the book more clearly states it. Michael feeds Carlo confusing information like “the Corleone family is gong to stop operating in NY”, and “everything will go to Tessio and Clemenza”, and “Carlo will be the right hand man in Vegas.” This all serves to both confuse the enemy and pacify someone who needs to be dealt. Thus Michael is able to maximize Carlo’s use until he has time to deal with him. He plans all the way to the end.
Often when someone betrays us we cut them off immediately or attack them with full force. Here Michael shows a superior way. By mixing creativity and understanding, we can turn what should be a weak position into a strength. Seeing opportunity in the jaws of betrayal is a form of power. Eventually if you do this enough, your strategic genius will become evident and people will willingly look to you for solutions to difficult situations. Once this starts happening, you know your expert power is increasing.
6. Referent Power
This leads us to the last of french and raven’s sources of power, referent power. Referent power is when you are able to influence things based on how much people like or respect you. Vito’s was extremely good at building this power type but we see through the second movie that Michael fails in this category. We see evidence of his failure here at the beginning of the first movie where people are loosely insulting him to his face. We also see this issue at the party in the second movie where people aren’t respectful at the table. But we don’t see the true issues Michael has with building this power source until later.
There are three major events that happen. First we see Fredo betray Michael. Fredo himself even says that he wishes he and Michael had time to chat and get to know each other. Maybe if Michael would have taken more time with Fredo and found a better way to use his skills Fredo might have respected and liked Michael more. This would have minimized the possibility that Fredo would have sought affiliation and a sense of belonging elsewhere. Ultimately Fredo had a need to feel significant and to be respected and Michael didn’t fulfill this need. Other people did, and so Fredo eventually fell away.
We see the same thing happen with his wife Kay where she refuses to bring another one of his children into the world because she doesn’t respect or even like him. She says she despises him. This poor treatment of his wife might not have affected his power in the short term, but in the long term it meant that he had fewer people to choose from as a successor. Thus his poor treatment of Kay meant he lost leverage in the long run.
Lastly we see the beginnings of this issue in an interaction between Michael and Tom. Tom is the right hand man for most of the movies. He gets a job offer that he declines in the second movie. Instead of understanding that everyone gets job offers, and choosing to be better at making Tom want to stay, Michael yells and gets aggressive with him.
Interestingly enough, there is a scientific reason Michael excels at building the other power bases but struggles at building referent power. It has to do with Michael’s personality profile. You might have this same issue if you have a similar personality profile.
One part of personality profiling describes human behavior in terms of an agreeable disagreeable spectrum. Agreeable people tend to be cooperative, considerate, and sympathetic. Those who are disagreeable tend to be more aggressive, contrarian, selfish, and controlling. Typically people think disagreeable traits are more advantageous in business settings.
However, one study that I linked to below actually found that while disagreeable people are on average better paid, they end up shooting themselves in the foot because they leave a wake of people who dislike them. Thus their advantage that they gain in negotiations and confrontations is negated by their poor ability to get people to like, trust, help, and affiliate with them.
Scientifically speaking, the clearest way to counter this personality weakness is to purposefully make an effort to serve and be generous with people around you. Interestingly enough, this is exactly what Vito did so well. He was always helping people first and being willing to do favors and make long term investments in people. Play the long game with people in order to better build your referent power.
We want to continue this “6 types of power analyzed” series but we need your help. Comment below if you have a character you would like us to break down. Check out our first Godfather power analyzed video here, if you haven’t seen it yet.