So you wanna be the Boss, huh? You do know that the majority (okay, all) wiseguys who make it to the top tier of the Cosa Nostra (literally, "Our Thing") start out in the lower ranks and make their way to the top with hard work, crazy risk-taking, a certain amount of backstabbing, and yes, some of the most brutal hazing rituals that make frat boys look like they’re on play dates. And right, let's not forget the hallmark of crime families: extravagant, immoderate loyalty to the end (or until a plea bargain weasels its way into someone's consciousness).
So what are mob bosses and why does being one (within a certain segment of the population) garner so much respect and fear? Sit down on this rich mahogany leather divan and listen to a story that’s as ageless as bathtub liquor and the sanitation business.
The typical pecking order for the Mafia—or the Mob—goes like this:
The Boss—or "Don" (and yes it's always a man).
The Boss has a consigliore or a "counselor" who's a trusted friend and adviser who also has the responsibility to represent the Don in important meetings.
Immediately below the boss is underboss, who is the second in command and would take over should something happen to the Don, like getting whacked.
The underboss is responsible for the training, overseeing, and corruption of the caporegimes—or capos—who are also high ranking members of the family; they're the leaders of the crews.
The crews consist of individual soldiers who collect protection and other money for the capo, who gives a "taste" of that money to the underboss and the Boss.
When we talk about the Mob, what we're really talking about is the Italian-American "formal" criminal society. The Mafia (though it doesn't call itself that), didn't originate in America; far from it. This organized crime system has its roots in Sicily, Italy, and it got its start way before the onset of cocaine, automatic guns, and the public disposal business. It was created to be a way of life; a way to protect—even safeguard—the members'’ family from the evils of government and law enforcement. The American Mafia is a separate organization that made its way across the Atlantic in the early 1900s during the waves of immigration from Italy. It emerged in New York's Lower East Side, and it was in the 1920s when the Mafia in America rose to power—during Prohibition.
The dawn of Prohibition signals a Golden Age for the American Mafia
Prohibition, the 18th Amendment to the American Constitution, made it illegal to manufacture, sell, or transport liquor in America. (It sounds kind of crazy to us now, but this law stood until 1933.) The Mafia in America jumped into the bootleg—or illegal—liquor business ("bootleg" coming from the 19th century horsemen who wore very high boots and were able to stash anything—illegal or not—in them). It was a booming business and the Mafia transformed itself into a sophisticated criminal enterprise, experts at smuggling, money laundering, and bribing police and other officials. In addition, many of the Mafia members from Italy left their home country during the oppressive regime of Mussolini and seamlessly stepped into the American Mafia culture, also getting involved with bootlegging.
When Prohibition was repealed, the bootlegging business slowed…to…a…screeeeeeching halt. But there was a still a whole world out there to corrupt with drug trafficking and loan sharking, and as well, the Mafia started infiltrating and gaining influence on labor unions and some legitimate business ventures such as construction, the garment industry, and waterfront trade and commerce. In the mid-20th century there were about 24 families and their power was huge. Sure, law enforcement knew about them and their illegal activities, but they were pretty powerless to do anything, what with all the bribing and intimidation going on. These wiseguys were seemingly untouchable and at the top of the tribe were…the Mob Bosses.
See, the Boss was (and is) normally very smart, very secretive, and knew the ins and outs of the businesses that particular family ran (legal and illegal), as well as the law enforcement resources that had their eye on the Family. To thwart that sort of attention and "bad press," the Boss put a "layer of protection" around him in order to stymie law enforcement from arresting or implicating him. His consigliore and capos are the ones he gives orders to; not the soldiers directly, therefore making it almost impossible to implicate him in any crime.
Of course, Mob Bosses are as different from each other as…Don Tony Soprano and Don Vito Corleone. Corleone ruled with absolute power, instilling unconditional fear and respect. Tony ruled with some power (some of it in his imagination), fear from his subordinates (and his wife and kids, if only because of his mental instability) and a modicum of respect (at least from some of the family). While Vito could have used some therapy to deal with his father's, brother's and mother's death at the hands of a Sicilian Boss, Tony, though somewhat dispiritedly, was forced to seek out a therapist to deal with his anxiety attacks that were impinging upon his work and personal life. Tony lived in Jersey; Vito in NYC.
And so, the moral of this story is: There are no morals. There may be, however, a slight glitch with your ambition to become the Boss; not an absolute kibosh but still, something to consider. The most likely path to becoming the Don is genetically: Your grandfather was the Boss, your dad was the Boss, you'll be the Boss and your son, Boss III, will be the Boss, too (assuming this fantasy about podiatry is put to rest).
If you're not Italian but you specialize in secrecy, furtiveness and discretion and if you've been making cannoli and ziti since you were a boy, get yourself ingratiated into a strong, tightly-woven and highly-strung family who may or may not depend only on the family genetics to pass on the knowledge and power. Then make a display of your loyalty and willingness to do whatevah to protect the family and its interests. One day, if the planets align and plenty of guys ahead of you are knocked off, you could find yourself sitting pretty as the Big Boss.