It's Bad Business to Let the Killer Get Away With It: The Sam Spade Guide to Better Business

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Sam Spade, the hard edged protagonist of The Maltese Falcon, is in some ways the quintessential small business owner.  He is a private detective (or dick if you prefer) with an office, a partner, a secretary and a network that would make a social media climber swoon.   As a small business owner he takes on the risks of running a business and enjoys the rewards.  He sets his own prices which vary significantly depending on the client and the job.  (Recovering the Maltese Falcon is worth thousands, while searching for someone’s sister is worth considerably less).  And despite his womanizing and wayward ways, he also embodies qualities that would behoove business owners to emulate.

Spoiler Alert: If you have not seen John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, a) I highly recommend that you go out and watch it immediately and b) caution you that, although I have attempted not to give too much away, the points below might reveal some aspects of the plot.

Just because you are a detective, it doesn’t mean you need to carry a gun

Spade bucks the trend  by relying on his wits and brute strength to overcome his adversaries, rather than carry a gun (it helps that he is especially skilled in divesting others of their guns) .  Fat Men and Little Boys are no match for him.  Business owners should rely on their strengths and their competitive advantage rather than blindly follow their competitors or expectations.

When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it.

Although Spade’s affection for his dead partner is a somewhat suspect  Spade actually sacrifices a great deal to bring his partner’s killer to justice.  As business owners, we often have to make hard choices.  In the end there is no substitute for doing the right thing.

You paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right

Spade is an excellent judge of character and usually sizes up the situation swiftly and accurately.  This is an instinct that comes with experience and people like Sam Spade are naturals at it.  Knowing when a situation requires closer examination can be extremely helpful in both business and life. 

When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it.

Sam Spade is the very epitome of assertiveness.  He never demonstrates fear, and always seems like he has the situation under control even when people have their guns aimed at him .  Of course, should someone be pointing a gun in your face I don’t generally recommend cockiness, business owners do often find themselves in situations with customers, suppliers, employees etc where they need to assert themselves, regardless of the risks.

There's never any telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing. 

Sam Spade is perhaps one of the most dynamic and unpredictable characters to grace the silver screen, and an archetype for the noir genre. He is a smooth talker, always has a witticism handy and reacts in ways that catch his adversaries off guard. While unpredictability is not always positive having the ability to outmanoeuvre is certainly a useful skill to have.  Also, people often like to deal with characters. 

All we've got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you. 

In the movie’s final scene, Spade is put in a situation where has to make a difficult emotional decision.  However, rather than react emotionally, he weighs the costs and benefits of the decision and ends up (in my opinion) doing the right thing.  Pragmatism can be difficult in emotionally charged situations, but is absolutely necessary to run a successful business.

You're invaluable, angel.  Get my lawyer on the phone for me.

Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine, is the model employee and a great friend.  She is smart, has excellent judgement, is loyal to a fault and utterly dependable,  She provides valuable opinions on clients and goes beyond her job description as a secretary by taking on interesting and often dangerous tasks, which of course she executes with efficiency and panache.  Not enough can be said about having great employees, and most business success is dependent on having people like this in your network.

Don’t have an affair with your partner’s wife

This is just bad for business.  Enough said.

The Maltese Falcon is a movie of rare genius and stands the test of time.  It’s interesting to note that it was released in 1941, the same year as Citizen Kane.  It is also interesting that, although both were nominated, neither won the Oscar that year.  Sam Spade business style, which is so intertwined with his character, may not work for everyone, but there are some valuable business lessons that can be learned.  And channelling Sam Spade during your business dealings can make it a lot more fun.

Would love to hear your thoughts.  Have you seen The Maltese Falcon?  Is Sam Spade worthy of emulation? Who is your favourite fictional business person?

Ronika Khanna is Montreal based accounting professional who helps small businesses achieve their financial goals.  To receive regular updates of articles pertaining to small business, accounting, tax and other topics of interest to business owners you can sign up here.  You can also follow her on Facebook or Twitter