That Leadership Journey 17 – The Gangster Diaries

I just finished reading a most remarkable book called “Gang Leader For A Day” by Sudhir Venkatesh. I did feel a little sad towards the end of the book, as he moved on to greater things, but the people in the neighbourhood did not. This is a part of life, be it friendships, collaborations, or business relationships – we sometimes pass on. Hopefully, we give something positive to the people we interact with, and do not leave too many negative emotions behind. However, this little post is not about passing on to other things, and leaving people behind. That, maybe, will be another post some other time in life.

Typically, when we talk about learning from other organizations, from business models that are outside our industry, we normally take examples from either the corporate world, or from allied worlds that are ‘socially acceptable’. I do know that some service industries have borrowed lessons from racing car track processes. We do not learn from organizations, or from practices that are outside the socially acceptable. Why not? I believe that this is so, because we sneer at these businesses, and look down at them. This then blinds us to some of the things that we could learn from them. For instance, it has been acknowledged that the porn industry has often been at the cutting edge of technology when it comes to distributing high quality films on the internet. A-ha!

However, I do not advocate that we all rush out and start hanging out with gangs, or that we become porn stars, or start any form of illegitimate activity or business.

Yet, when I read the book, I did have a few “A-ha” moments.

When we talk of a typical organization, we talk of various common themes like:

  1. Vision: What is our vision for the organization? Sudhir did not speak of the gang bosses having a vision for their organization, but he did talk of them as being proud of the name of their gang. The gang stood for something
  2. Revenue Streams: The gang-bosses were continuously looking for new revenue streams to augment their income streams, and tracked (albeit without SAP systems) the revenue from their various activities
  3. Brand: While they do not advertise the name of their gangs, the gang stands for a set of values that attracts, or repels, new people to the gang membership
  4. Recruitment & Performance Management: The gang leaders were always trying to recruit the right kind of people to the gang. Good performers, and those with proven performance and leadership track records were promoted
  5. Risk: This is one area where there is a difference. The risk factors are high, and poorly executed strategies result in instant loss of revenue and life. This is a high risk business, and unlike corporate situations, the results of actions in gang activities are felt immediately. Response times have to be lightening quick. They do not have the luxury of time. Constant vigilance is key
  6. Intelligence: Constant vigilance is key, and they are always gathering information on the movement of rival gangs, of ‘foot soldiers’ who may be skimming some revenue for themselves, or from some of the people who have to pay up and don’t
  7. Punishment: It is not as random as we would expect. A good leader metes out reward and punishment deliberately, and to systematically drive home a message
  8. Managing The Environment: In the corporate world, this is called lobbying

When I read the book, I realized that many of these chaps look at their activities as business. They also are people who display strong leadership; they are people who can read other people very well. They have to be able to do this. Their survival depends on this. Constant vigilance is key. They also have to be constantly aware of the changing environment – new gangs, methods, revenue streams – and to adapt accordingly.

Sounds disturbingly familiar? It should.

When you express it in business jargon, you realize that these are very well-oiled businesses, and that these chaps have to run a very tight ship.

Just because their business is illegitimate and dangerous, it does not mean that that they are inferior business men or business women.

Strange indeed are the ways of the world….


  1. Excellent and interesting post. When I was living in a north England city I often thought some of the young men I saw busy selling drugs and caught-up in gangs could easily have succeeded in business if they grew-up with different opportunities and upbringing. The skills, nous and nerve needed are not so different.

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