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The Godfather Model

Advice for the Class of 2003 on How to Get Things Done at MIT

Eric J. Plosky

We’ve all been taught to cooperate, to play nice, to stay inside the lines if we want to get things done. “Follow the rules.” “Obey the law.” “Go through channels.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

With the Class of 2003 beginning to mill around on campus, now is the perfect time to repeat one of my favorite old chestnuts: Don’t listen to any of that crap. From now on, take the Godfather as your model for getting things done. Always seize the initiative. If you can’t bend the rules, break them -- sometimes it’s the only way to get something done. Don’t play word games with your opponents; crush them. The system isn’t in control; you are.

Good advice, I think, for all of us, but particularly for the (figuratively) apple-cheeked freshmen. The dying gasps of Rush will confuse your Orientation, and later on the bewildering blizzard of academics will surely traumatize. But let not such events become obstacles in your path. Sometimes you’ve just gotta punch your way through.

But none of this is really my point, because self-conscious individual nonconformity has long since ceased to interest me. What I’m advocating is the Godfather approach to student affairs in general, to campus life and governance. Student leadership at MIT has long tried to play by the rules, and look at the results. In the wake of the 1997 drinking death of Scott Krueger ’01, the administration has run roughshod over the opinions and desires of students -- not because administrators are inherently more powerful, but because student government and student leaders tried to work within their own mini-bureaucracy instead of grabbing the administration by the short hairs and demanding a response to student concerns.

Now is the chance to change all of that. Maybe there are a couple of Godfathers among the 2003-ers, lurking somewhere on campus in a temp room right now, waiting for their chance to spring forward and assume control of some empire or other. I hope so. It’s been too long since someone has dared to assert control over anything on campus, and I think it would be a refreshing change even to have self-styled student mobsters take the place over. As long as things got done.

There are limits, of course. Mussolini may have made the trains run on time, but he was a shady sort and not the kind of person I’d like to point to as a shining example of sterling leadership. Let it be said that I’m talking about methods, not motivations. If you’re going to pursue a gangster’s objectives, read no further.

On the other hand, if you’re a genuine do-gooder who’s frustrated by the narrow confines of MIT’s within-the-lines world, or if you’re simply looking for the first opportunity to bust forward to grab the reins of power, keep reading. I have a few suggestions, which are by no means novel but by all means vital -- and, in my vast MIT experience, I can’t remember the last time they were applied here.

First, be vocal. If something is bothering you, complain about it. Loudly. Incompetent or failed attempts at assistance should be reacted to harshly; don’t allow yourself to be mollified by half-measures. “Well, at least they’re trying,” you might think. So? If you’re not actually going to make a difference, forget about it; a difference which makes no difference is no difference. Don’t shut up until your concerns are answered satisfactorily. Note that you might have to compromise a bit on your definition of “satisfactorily.” Compromise is a tactic, not a vulnerability.

Be a pragmatist. Figure out what is possible and then go and get it. Don’t chase lofty ideals; pursue the practical. Success will encourage you to seek larger and larger goals, and eventually even the lofty might be within reach. Start small, paying attention to matters immediately surrounding you, and you’ll be able to make more of a difference than the idle dreamer would imagine possible. You can still muse on world affairs and the karmic nature of the universe, but don’t expect anything to result from such wonderings. Get down to business.

Be shrewd. Figure out who knows what’s going on -- in every situation there’s always at least one person (not necessarily the person in charge) who knows absolutely everything -- and focus your attention. No need to be confrontational or adversarial; in fact, if you’re crafty enough, the person on the other end of your problem will suddenly realize that he’s become your ally. The person who knows everything may not be responsible for making your life miserable, so don’t make his life miserable. Contrariwise, if you’re able to pin down your personal Satan, make his (working) life a living hell until you’re satisfied.

Be bold. If existing procedures or organizations can’t handle what you have in mind, bypass them. Create a whole new way of doing things. Start a crusade, as long as you have the dedication and resources a credible crusade requires. Don’t fall back on cliches; you’ll look feeble. Innovate. Put a new spin on an old quark.

Be attentive. If you sense an opening or an opportunity, grab it. People-watching is always entertaining and usually rewarding if you’re sufficiently perceptive, because you’ll soon divine who knows what. Get to know people’s strengths and weaknesses, and determine what they know. Don’t assume that situations will remain forever, helplessly opaque. Look and listen.

Finally, be irreverent. People who take themselves too seriously quickly become seriously annoying, and have a tendency to fade into obscurity before they have a chance to accomplish anything. Keep a sense of humor. After all, you may be the Godfather, but this is only MIT, where the motto hidden somewhere on every Brass Rat is IHTFP.