Mafia Organization: Governance Processes and Leadership Function

Franco Di Maria and Giorgio Falgares

Franco Di Maria and Giorgio Falgares


Franco Di Maria

Franco Di Maria

Giorgio Falgares

Giorgio Falgares

Even though Cosa Nostra is the most powerful criminal organization inthe world, few national and international studies have been carried out on this phenomenon so far. The main reasons are: a) the complexity of the study object. As a matter of fact, Cosa Nostra, in addition to being a criminal phenomenon, is also a psychic and an anthropological phenomenon at the same time, with its own distinctive features; b) Cosa Nostra is not directly observable nor measurable, but only inferable. It is founded on secrecy and its inviolability. People describe it as a world that cannot be seen, apparently invisible. Our knowledge of its activity is limited to some periods of time or phases in the past; c) the particular relation that ties Cosa Nostra, and more generally the Mafia mentality, with Sicilian culture. In fact, Cosa Nostra has improperly used Sicilian culture and values.

Conscious of the particular complexity of the study object, we thought that a good approach to a better understanding of Cosa Nostra universe was the analysis and the description (according to what collaborators with justice said) of the different phases of its activity during the last forty years, with a special focus on governance and leadership processes.

We assume that the leadership of Cosa Nostra is something peculiar to it, completely different from the typically Italian one, whose characteristics cannot be seen in any ancient or modern theory about leadership.


Our work aims to trace and define, from a psychological perspective, the profound changes that the Sicilian Mafia organization (Cosa Nostra) has undergone over the past forty years with regard to power management and, more generally, its processes and dynamics of governance.

The basic hypothesis, is that Cosa Nostra, like any business group with an organizational structure, cyclically experiences the fundamental, perhaps vital, problem of the functioning of leadership as expression of an organizational culture.

To this end, we have focused on the analysis of two closely-related approaches. The first looks at Cosa Nostra from a clinical-anthropological point of view, and therefore as a psychological phenomenon, a mentality, a way of thinking and of conceiving relationships and, as mentioned, an independent grouping with highly specific anthropological characteristics (Di Maria, Menarini & Lavanco, 1995). The second takes a psychodynamically-oriented look at the organizational psychology of Cosa Nostra, highlighting its driving dynamics, its structure, its value system, ideologies and its interpretation of the Sicilian cultural context (Di Maria, 1998).

Finally, through an analysis using these levels / dimensions, to be regarded as guides, and our interpretation of the Mafia phenomenon, we have reconsidered the story of Cosa Nostra, with particular attention both to the personalities of its consecutive leaders, and to the parallel organizational needs which have arisen over the years which it has been able to satisfy thanks to its leaders and the way they were able to use their power.

Psychological Fundamentalism, Identification Needs and Family: Cosa Nostra between In-group and Out-group

Cosa Nostra cannot be compared with any other organization and not because of the danger of its criminal actions. Rather it is the specific underlying cultural matrix  it crosses, that makes the mafia a unique, complex phenomenon – a specific type of mentality (Di Maria et al., 1989).

For this reason, since our early research, attention has focused on this particular dimension, in the belief that it could offer useful instruments to understand a situation that has, for many years, appeared impenetrable.

The analysis of interviews conducted with ‘men of honour’, magistrates and police (Lo Verso et al., 1999) have helped to portray the Cosa Nostra as a particular ethnic group, with its own organization, culture and codes of behavior. More specifically, we hypothesise that within the same island coexist two ‘ethnicities’ – that of the mafia and that which is Sicilian. The former is a rigid, distorted and exaggerated expression of Sicilian character traits taken as a whole.

The above has led us to explore Cosa Nostra as an anthropo-cultural world into itself, with its own identity, separate and distinct from that of the wider polis, which makes the mafioso ‘feel’ proudly different and foreign from what should be their natural grouping – the state, with its laws and values, the social context in which they actually live – which contrasts starkly with the laws and values of mafia culture (Di Maria, Falgares & Lo Coco, 2002).

Belonging to the ‘ethnic mafia’ for these people means having a recognizable identity. It is by means of this identity that they are able to give meaning to their ‘being in the world’. Furthermore, this identity serves as container for their weaknesses.

Let us give an example. An informant tells how inside the Cosa Nostra, the bosses establish relationships with their underlings that may be compared to a father/son relationship – meaning protection, respect, a person to listen to, loyalty and faith in the other.

The aberrant aspect of this relationship within the mafia however, is that the slightest gesture, word or behaviour which seems to oppose the ‘father’ or his commands (thus the entire organization), and the life of the ‘son’ will be cut short, without trace of remorse or guilt (Di Maria, Falgares, & Lo Coco, 2002).

What we here affirm about the relationship between Cosa Nostra and its affiliates, is consistent with recent theories from clinical psychology and anthropology regarding the dynamics and processes that link mental development to one’s native culture (Remotti, 2010; Mitchell, 2000). Within Cosa Nostra, however, this relationship is structurally warped.

A clear and strong connection may be observed between the psychological characteristics of the individual member who, unlike the usual mass media portrayal, may be described as profoundly insecure, in need of protection and safety – and mafia culture, all-encompassing and infantilising, it is thus able to meet the identity requirements of the subject, just as with fundamentalist religious cultures.

Once again, in order to clarify this point it may be useful to make reference to the literature of psychology and in particular to authors such as Lewin and Tajfel. It is known that for Lewin (1951), all individuals need the group to define and express themselves. For Tajfel (1978), personal identity is formed by belonging to a group and feeling a member of it to create what this author calls ‘social identity’. The mafia too, may be described in these terms, with the only substantial difference being that here, belonging to the group would seem to be a vital necessity. In other words, despite the authors’ claims above, that any individual may, in the course of their lives, and according to specific goal, pass from one group to another – it does not seem to be the case for affiliates of the Cosa Nostra.

These trends are more directly observable, as we shall see, within the relationship that binds the individual to his mafia clan, the so-called mafia family. The family is to be understood here as a human organization, not always coinciding with the natural family — which has the additional tasks of instilling values and world views, establishing codes of conduct and rules of coexistence, and strictly enforcing them. This bond, due of its high level of idealization and fusion, makes it impossible for a member to change from a ‘familial’ to a ‘political’ belonging. The non-recognition of the latter is reduced to the point of becoming synonymous with belonging to the family clan — the only recognized social group.

This means the possibility of psychic growth (their subjectivity) for a member of Cosa Nostra is psychologically obstructed, because their existence depends, without their awareness, on the choices and desires of the group. The mafia, in other words, is a deeply enslaving and dogmatic culture demanding obedience, loyalty and an extreme sense of belonging from its affiliates (Di Maria & Lavanco, 1992a).

Interesting in this regard was the study of statements made by pentiti (police collaborators) in the courts. They affirmed that within their Cosa Nostra clan, the emotional value of their sense of belonging was greater than that felt in their real, genetic families. Suffice to say, most emotional ties are substantially aimed at the strengthening of alliances or to the conservation of power structures, and therefore have no relation to personal needs, which are, on the contrary, “sacrificed” or deleted (Di Maria, Falgares, & Lo Coco, 2002).

All this only helps to emphasize feelings of brotherhood and belonging to the organization, but these, as mentioned and as we’ll see in terms of leadership and governance mechanisms, are entirely false and unauthentic, despite their necessity in feeding the mechanisms of social consensus and interest of Cosa Nostra family for its members (Lo Coco, 1998).

And it is this consensus – whose primary power source is the imaginary ideological framework of the family – which is the most revealing aspect of what we affirm. Deceptively promising control and reassurance, Cosa Nostra exercises full psychological control over its affiliates, who are thus ‘squeezed’ into a spiraling, dogmatic dimension of false certainties, in which the belief prevails that for the good of the Mafia organization, even the most heinous crimes may be considered ‘right’ – from the sacrifice their real family to the taking of their own lives (Di Vita, 1989; Lo Verso, 1998; Di Maria & Falgares, 2010).

The Structural Organization of Cosa Nostra: Between Formal and Informal

Cosa Nostra is described as an organization with a specific formal dimension. Rational, structured, it is made up of roles, hierarchies, methods, goals and ways of pursuing them. Besides this formal dimension, Cosa Nostra, like other organizations, is more easily investigated in its informal, less visible and latent aspects. Both dimensions, besides being inseparable, are closely related to the above-made claims and will help us to better understand how the organization manages power, builds consensus, sanctions roles and chooses its leaders.

From the point of view of its general structure, Cosa Nostra reflects the structure of the family, mirroring its objectives and modes of operation.

Its roles are the roles of male relatives, with the exception of the maternal role, projected onto the organization as a whole. The basic cell of the organization, called the “family” consists of a certain number of ‘men of honour’, a number ranging from 50 to 300 members, at the head of which there is a capo famiglia – a ‘head of the house’. The ‘family’ operates in a well-defined territory in which it tries to extend his power. Within this area all the activities that take place in it are familiar with the family and can take place only with the absence of the capo famiglia (Fiore, 1998).

The base member of the ‘family’ is the ‘man of honour’, or soldier, who plays an important role within the family, in fact it is through his work that power tends to increase. Belonging to a ‘family’ is a powerful element of reassurance to those involved. The capo famiglia protects his interests, both in regard to the activities that take place in the territory, and with respect to all the families that make up Cosa Nostra.

The capo famiglia is elected from among ‘men of honour’ in a given ‘family’. The election is almost always unanimous, since between ‘men of honour’ there have previously been contacts to gauge who among them is able to best represent the family’s interests. The capo famiglia immediately appoints a deputy capo famiglia and advisers. Between the capo famiglia and “men of honour” is the capo decina (‘head-of-ten’, having ten soldiers under his command). The capo decina may contact the capo famiglia. Various capo famiglia from the same province elect the provincial representatives, who in turn make up the “regional committee”, the governing body of the entire organization.

As in other organizations, within Cosa Nostra exist rigid criteria for selection, based on careful and long observation of the person seeking to be affiliated. To enter, he must demonstrate a range of personality characteristics, which must fit closely to the stereotype of the typical Sicilian male. In particular, elevated self-esteem and the ability to kill without questioning and without hesitation or compassion.

Once recruited, the subject is trained through a teaching methodology that can be defined by notions of generational transmission. The subject does not yet know the intentions of the mafia ‘family’, but notices that there are certain expectations. There is, however, upstream, a strong attraction for the aspiring mafioso of an idealized world wherein the mafioso is seen as a kind of authority, a person to whom everyone turns for favours or solutions. Behind this apparent rationality of membership, as seen, lies the coercion exerted by an environment that has long prepared the subject to a fate from which escape will not be easy.

From the point of view of rational organization, the rite of membership to Cosa Nostra is the time when a member express consent to join this world, to share the objectives and the means of their pursuit (Di Maria, Lavanco & Lo Piccolo, 1998). Behind the ritual, hides affiliation to a new ‘family’ that stands as a guarantee for life of his male identity through that which he is asked of to prove it: contempt for life and feelings. The values of mafia culture seem supported above all by a rigid ideological skeleton.

Cosa Nostra, in fact, as an organization is founded on the exclusion of feelings, leaves no space for sentiment – considered a sign of weakness. The capo famiglia explains what Cosa Nostra is to the future ‘man of honor’ and  the rules that govern it. Coercion is clearly present in this moment: It would be impossible to renounce membership, because such a choice would mean death. This clarifies the dependence relationship the new mafioso feels towards the mafia ‘family’, he needs it for his own self-preservation and thus the mafia ‘family’ can exercise the power of life and death over its members.

Cosa Nostra has its own unwritten rules, of course, because they are engraved in the mind of the future ‘man of honour’ during the long process of education within the ‘family’. They represent an exaggeration of typically Sicilian values and behaviours. They are the functional existence of the mafia ‘family’. Every ‘honourable man’ knows that the punishment for violating the rules is inevitable and that he will be executed.

Summing up greatly, one could say that the sole objective of the entire organization and its leader, the structure of its governance, is enrichment — namely the accumulation of goods, realized through the acquisition of power and territorial control. The means chosen by Cosa Nostra to achieve these objectives differ and depend on changes in the broader operational context. On these objectives, as stated, this maximum consensus and the illusion of immediate earnings and enrichment make Cosa Nostra membership seem even more desirable.

Besides the more formal dimension of the organization, to better understand the universe of Cosa Nostra, it is essential to shift the focus of observation to less visible and deep aspects of its operation. In this sense, it is certainly true that the main objective of the organization is the control of territory (understood in a geographical sense) and financial gain, but on a more strictly psychodynamic level Cosa Nostra has as its primary objective the psychological control of its members, in order to attain and maintain consensus. This consent is obtained by supplying affiliates the conviction that comes being part of a large family, able to protect, assist, promote brotherhood, respect and loyalty to values established over time.

The most dramatic aspect is how much of what is told within Cosa Nostra is profoundly false, usually revealing itself a trap, often deadly, for those involved. This means that Cosa Nostra, contrary to propaganda, always operates with the register of lies, betrayal, treachery, duplicity – particularly when facing crises, generational transitions or changes in strategies. In this way, Cosa Nostra maintains itself and ensures its continuity.

The apparently surprising fact is that none of the above detracts from the magnetism the organization exudes over its members who find themselves trapped in a reality with no escape. From among various stories, there was an affiliate who, despite having given proof of his loyalty to the group, was sacrificed by his group to harmonise tensions with a rival group.

How Cosa Nostra Changes: A Brief Historical Analysis of Psychological Phenomenon between Governance, Leadership and Leader

From the late 60’s Cosa Nostra has undergone continuous and profound organizational changes that have brought about significant changes both in terms of the quality of governance and leadership. In reality, it was the profound changes in the more general socio-political Italian scene, which forced Cosa Nostra to rethink their organizational needs, change their strategies and identify new leaders, without upsetting the entire organizational culture it spanned (Lupo, 1996).

We divide the last forty years of Cosa Nostra into three very different phases or periods. The first is from the late sixties to the early eighties. It was the time when Cosa Nostra, whose centre of power is the city of Palermo, thanks to a kind of pluralistic governance, through the sharing of formally “democratic” rules and a circular type of leadership, renounced a governing commission: each leader would command his own family without expansionist aims.

The various successive leaders at the helm of the organization are recognized and chosen as such because they are able to embody the historical and cultural tradition of Cosa Nostra and because they manage to seep into the economic and social fabric of the city, often soliciting admiration and approval. These are educated people with an excellent ability to read the context

For complex historical and political reasons, not addressable here, the organizational structure of Cosa Nostra in the early eighties was in crisis. A new phase began, which would last until the beginning of the new century.

Those who until then had had the unchallenged control of the organization were physically eliminated by a rival group, outsiders to the city of Palermo, who, by virtue of force, transformed Cosa Nostra into a top-down organization like the military, operating through the imposition of rules based on terror and on the wise choice of trustworthy and criminal allies (see previous chapter).

As Bion (1961) states, in crisis situations the group will always choose the most pathological of its members as its leader. Cosa Nostra, to survive and overcome one of the most delicate moments in its development (the war with the rival faction), entrusted its leadership to the most pathologically ruthless member. A cruelty boasting for years of good will and brotherhood and so able to hold together its ‘families’ and to convey the (false) sense of membership to the group, which Cosa Nostra desperately needed during this transition.

Group cohesion is enhanced the hyping of a belief in an external danger to the group, represented by either rival groups or the State, and always ready to threaten. This way of governing the organization has helped to create the right tension for members to feel not only united, but always alert, ready for attack, to serve the Capo for the good of the group. In fact, during these years Cosa Nostra had no need to fear danger, with the available force and institutional complicity that have allowed it to remain unpunished.

The only real danger for the members, however, came from the Capo ready to discard his men when they failed to show reliability (a failure on a psychological level, an inability to keep secret a truth, or even if a boss warned, paranoid, that certain of his men could pose a threat to him or to the entire group). On the other hand, an organization that makes insincerity the very meaning of its existence could not help but choose as leader one who excels beyond all others at lying, deception, duplicity and bad faith.

It is the phase wherein may be identified a special and very specific way of managing power. Power through (false) care, as well as power through control and coercion. In these circumstances, terror becomes the only instrument of domination — the will of the Capo and his leadership the only law, and the opposition the objective enemy. Psychodynamically speaking, we could say it is the fear of the Capo that is the main mechanism of legitimation of the role and of constructing and maintaining consensus, even if all of this is, as mentioned, cleverly concealed by seeming good faith and readiness-to-help. To paraphrase Lewin, we define this modality of expressing leadership “cruelly authoritarian” or “falsely paternal.”

Men are chosen only if they have certain basic personality requirements. They must demonstrate willingness to be indoctrinated into criminality and cruelty, that is, the process of hardening and brutalization that the organization considers essential in transforming members into willing and trusted tools for their own criminal ends.

The rage expressed upon victims is the physical outcome of that process of blind devotion and unquestioning obedience to the leader which they feel. Their killing is neither a cruel nor heinous act, but the fulfillment of a superior will that needs only to be fulfilled. The purpose or the reasons for an order are never questioned. They obey for the very sake of obedience. What we would call cruelty is rather an ideology, in other words, the mental structure of Cosa Nostra organization (Di Maria & Lavanco, 1992b).

Even this way of running and governing Cosa Nostra organization, in the early years of the millennium, would run into irreversible crisis. The rules were enforced through threat, the ruthlessness of the crimes, the bluntness of the political and military strategies, the challenge to the state through the so-called strategy of tension (bombings and killings), helped to re-edit the organizational structure of Cosa Nostra, paving the way for a new phase.

So, how is Cosa Nostra changing today? What is its current organizational structure? Of those who govern, which management qualities must they possess ? These questions are not easy to answer since the information we hold about Cosa Nostra are never contemporaneous, but refer to periods or phases already in the past. Nevertheless, it appears that Cosa Nostra is experiencing a very difficult phase, in which continuity must be saved, paradoxically, from its ability to transform itself. In this sense, it seems that Cosa Nostra is back in the past, when bosses were figures of great cultural importance, less inclined to commit heinous crimes, but rather to maintain control over illegal economic activities and establish links with seemingly more honest elements in society.

The hypothesis is that even the formal and structural organization, of which we have spoken has changed, assuming a new, more dynamic and less rigid set-up. We also know that Palermo has returned as a hub of mafia interests, and that strategies and businesses are now drawn out in its exclusive salons and clubs.

It is no coincidence, then, that the personal and professional identikit of the recent mafiosi (both leaders and followers) arrested by the police force is quite different from that described above. It is often an unsuspected professional, with direct access to the political world, interested in business and able to mediate conflict situations (Di Maria & Falgares, 2007). The underlying problem though is that the person arrested by the police is never really the person in control. Arrests are often the final step of a downward turn of a single mafioso and/or his group.

Currently, it appears that the true and undisputed leader in Cosa Nostra is a fugitive, whose task is to lead the organization during this period of profound transition. We have here a leader who represents the ultimate expression of the tentacles of the Mafia collusion, who understands the dynamics of power and who expresses himself through non-suspicious professionally and socially undercover people, his face always seemingly clean. No more Padrini, violence and strict codes of conduct. Cosa Nostra now relies on financial instruments, able to communicate and build social consensus that, having been in crisis for several years, are able to build dense networks of relationships, without having to stand in opposition to the state.

This is a educated, bright, modern, person who has lived at the forefront of all phases and transformations within Cosa Nostra, with an undoubted expertise in combining the need for continuity of the entire mafia and his cultural background, with a necessary recrossing of this, an extraordinary ability to ‘read’ current and future changes within the broader social, political and economic Sicilian context, and a great ability to exploit the resonating call that Cosa Nostra continues to exercise on very large sectors of civil society, understanding and satisfying needs and demands.

We may talk of a managerial leadership, charismatic and functional (ie the guarantor of the project or mandate that the organization gave to him) at a time. If it is true, then, that the Cosa Nostra has always needed a charismatic leader, the current leader of the organization expresses his charisma, not as before through aggression, by terrorizing  members, but instead through a sophisticated ability to involve all who feel this way to unite in a common cause. A charisma not expressed through ferocity, by terrorizing allies (in the long-run this attitude always leads to rebellion and false cohesion), but through the involvement of all who need to feel part of a common cause.

The common cause, and thus the common goal is to do business – the control of illegal business, to propose business without resort to violence. This kind of attitude, only seems moderate, communicative, and available – and helps to facilitate the process of mythologization of the leader and organization as a whole. We defined this condition as “feeling mafia”. This induces a disposition among the general population, which leads them to perceive the organization as caring and protective, glossing over its vicious and cruel aspects in the justification of its existence.

And this is perhaps the true power and danger of Cosa Nostra organization-and its leadership: the ability to arouse admiration and consent from groups not only far removed from the criminal world, but who themselves would distain from compliance with the laws and so instead, express a substantial sense of collusion and adherence to core values of Cosa Nostra. In other words, it is not necessary to believe that the ability to build consensus in and outside the organization is due only to the ability of the Capo and his way of exercising power (whether charismatic, intimidating or paternal). They are, unfortunately, mafia codes of conduct which have a strong social recognition: it is primarily this factor which was responsible for the ability of Cosa Nostra to lay claim to Sicily. The various leaders, if anything, are better able to represent other such codes, becoming guarantors of a story, that of the Mafia. A story intertwined with that of Sicily itself in a complex background/foreground relationship.


Bion, W. R. (1961) Experiences in Groups and others Paper. London: Tavistock Publications.

Di Maria, F., Di Nuovo, S., Di Vita, A. M., Dolce, C. G., & Pepi, A. M. (1989) Il sentire mafioso. Percezione e valutazione di eventi criminosi nella pre-adolescenza. Milano: Giuffrè.

Di Maria, F., & Lavanco, G. (1992a) “La mafia dentro”, Psicologia contemporanea 112.

Di Maria, F., & Lavanco, G. (1992b) “Il crimine per obbedienza”, Psicologia contemporanea 114.

Di Maria, F., Menarini, R., & Lavanco, G. (1995) “Sindromi depressive etniche e “Sentire Mafioso”. Un modello esplicativo gruppoanalitica”, Archivio di Psicologia, Neurologia e Psichiatria, LVI, 5-6.

Di Maria, F. (Ed.) (1998) Il segreto e il dogma. Percorsi per capire la comunità mafiosa. Milano: Franco Angeli.

Di Maria, F., Lavanco, G., & Lo Piccolo, C. (1998) “Senso e significato nell’organizzazione mafiosa”, in F. Di Maria,  (Ed.) Il segreto e il dogma. Percorsi per capire la comunità mafiosa. Milano: Franco Angeli.

Di Maria, F., Falgares, G., & Lo Coco, G. (2002) “Lo Straniero. Il pentito di mafia tra ingroup e outgroup”, Psicologia Contemporanea, 173.

Di Maria, F. & Falgares, G. (2007) “Mafia e salotti buoni”, Psicologia Contemporanea 203.

Di Maria, F. & Falgares, G. (2010) “Essere uomini d’onore”, Psicologia Contemporanea 221.

Di Vita, A. M. (Ed.) (1986) Alle radici di un’immagine della mafia. Milano: Franco Angeli.

Fiore, I. (1997) Le radici inconsce dello psichismo mafioso. Milano: Franco Angeli.

Lewin, K. (1951) Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper & Row.

Lo Coco, G. (1998) “Famiglia e crisi del pensiero familiare nello psichismo Mafioso”, Terapia Familiare 56.

Lo Verso, G. (Ed.) (1998) La mafia dentro. Psicologia e psicopatologia di un fondamentalismo. Milano: Franco Angeli.

Lo Verso, G., Lo Coco, G., Mistretta, S., & Zizzo, G. (Eds.) (1999) Come cambia la mafia. Esperienze giudiziarie e psicoterapeutiche. Milano: Franco Angeli.

Mitchell, S. (2000) Relationality. From attachment to intersubjectivity. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Lupo, S. (1996) Storia della mafia dalle origini ai nostri giorni. Roma: Donzelli.

Tajfel, H. (1978) “The Psychological Structure of Intergroup Relations”, in H. Tajfel (Ed.), Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social Psychology of intergroup relations. London: Academic Press.

Remotti, F. (2010) L’ossessione identitaria. Roma-Bari: Laterza.

About the Authors

Franco Di Maria is a Full Professor in Clinical Psychology, University of Palermo, Psychoterapist and Groupanalyst. His current researches explore Group Dynamics, Political Psychology and feeling mafia. He was Board Member of the International Association of Group Psychoterapy (IAGP). Email:

Giorgio Falgares is a Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology, University of Palermo, Psychoterapist and Group analyst. His current researches explore Group Dynamics, Political Psychology and Leadership Processes in Criminal Organizations. Email: