Group psychotherapy column: The untouchable group

Everything I’ve needed to know in life, I have learned from Al Capone.
By Tevya Zukor, PhD

Tevya Zukor Everything I’ve needed to know in life I have learned from Al Capone.

Don’t get me wrong. I never knew the man personally. While not exactly young, I’m certainly not that old. But I like to consider myself a man of history and context. I also believe we can learn valuable lessons even from the most flawed of characters. “Scarface” proves my point.

At his core, Capone knew that in order to have success – true success – one needs to achieve not only personal excellence, but also needs to support the success of the large group – or “mob” – to achieve true greatness. Otherwise, personal success will never be anything more than temporary and fleeting.

Need proof? Name another famous Chicago Meat Packer. Go ahead; I’ll wait. I’m fairly certain that you’ve come up with less than nothing. But when I ask for someone to name a famous crime boss, names like Fat Tony, Vito Genevese and Whitey Bulger start to easily roll off the tongue. These were men of power – frighteningly corrupt and maleficent as it was – and will always be remembered in the annals of history.

I’m certainly not trying to argue that organized crime is a good thing – the murders, graft and corruption would likely make that argument a non-starter from the outset – but from a purely group perspective, most organized crime syndicates are widely successful, at least if non-traditionally defined, groups of people. They set goals and are willing to do almost anything necessary to actualize those goals for the greater good of the organization. Sometimes members of the team have to make individual sacrifices for the betterment of the larger organization. For example, you might have a close friend that you’ve grown up with since childhood, but once the organization determines that person to be a “rat or snitch,” the needs of the organization take priority, and it is often the very friend who is tasked with “removing” the problem for the group.

And true to the group dynamics literature, even broken or corrupt groups can often wield massive influence and may, sometimes accidentally or coincidentally, even promote positive change and social cohesion. When observed through the lens of history, most scholars view the prohibition movement in the United States during the 1920s and ‘30s as woefully misguided at best, and at worst as being responsible for removing freedoms and liberties from citizens of a nation that was founded on protecting some of those very same freedoms and liberties. If one is being genuinely objective, it is near-impossible not to acknowledge the role that Al Capone and the Chicago mob had in bringing an end to the prohibition era. While these gangsters were certainly strongly motivated by financial gain and the corrupt use of influence, the end result remains a relatively celebrated moment in American history.

Organized sports are often considered the pinnacle to group dynamics. Baseball, frequently referred to as “America’s pastime,” requires organizations to function successfully both as a unit and as a group comprised of many individual, single successes. Even in this realm, Al Capone — or at least my favorite version of him, played by Robert DeNiro in the movie The Untouchables — once again speaks with the passion and conviction of a man who has the truth of group dynamics by his side when he delivers his famous soliloquy:

Life goes on. A man becomes preeminent; he's expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms ... Enthusiasms ... What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which gives me joy? [grabs a baseball bat] Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork.... Looks, throws, catches, hustles —part of one big team. Bats himself the live-long day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and so on. If his team don't field...what is he? You follow me? No one! Sunny day, the stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? "I'm goin' out there for myself. But... I get nowhere unless the team wins.”

Al Capone conceptualizes in less than a minute what people spend thousands of dollars in college courses to learn – Individual success is always limited if it does not promote or comes at the expense of the larger group.

Al Capone was a gangster, a killer and generally bad man, but he’s taught me almost as much about group psychotherapy as luminaries such as Irv Yalom or any one of the Corey’s. His life has also taught me something that none of those other scholars has ever attempted to teach – this April 15, don’t forget to pay your taxes! It makes our team better.