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Julie Rowlett

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Leadership styles – What can HR learn from The Apprentice?


Reflecting on the first episode of the 2010 series of The Apprentice, it’s somehow reminiscent of the David Brent scenes in The Office – only this time for real. The show had many cringe-worthy, toe curling moments; particularly when a certain character (Dan Harris) tried unsuccessfully to assert his authority in a desperate attempt to show the rest who was ‘boss’.

Dan Harris, a sales director, was the first to fall foul of Lord Sugar’s, ‘You’re fired’, index finger in the boardroom showdown. Losing the task when appointed Team Leader was the first nail in the coffin, although his overly aggressive leadership style was the final!
Viewers were squirming on their sofas as Dan barked various orders during the teams’ sausage making task: "Who’s doing the mincing? STEP UP!" He bullied his team into carrying out specific tasks, without prior consultation, and then insisted on watching their every move (micro-managing). What really frustrated the team was their leader’s lack of willingness in ‘getting his hands dirty’ – meanwhile Dan regularly informed his team that he was a ‘project leader’, not a worker on this task.
As viewers, it’s very easy to pull apart the approach of Dan, as it is to criticise others performance, particularly when looking in from the outside; it is much more difficult be objective and reflect on our own personal performance, although this is something really effective leaders and managers do with regularity.
Leaders and managers are in a very vulnerable position; they are highly visible and when it does go wrong – as we saw in The Apprentice – it is their head that is on the block. But when it comes to receiving feedback on leadership style, many leaders are left snookered. Often feeling they can’t ask for outright feedback, for fear of it being viewed as a sign of weakness, there can be a tendency surround themselves with people that agree with them because of their position.
Knowing who to trust, and having a business confidante, is crucial to successful leadership. Again, back to a scene in The Apprentice, with one contestant trying to tell the other that his selling tactic on the street market was too brash for the general public. Rather than take the feedback, or ask for further explanation of why his colleague thought so, the contestant went straight on the defensive – unwilling to listen to criticism or recommendation.
Those in leadership and management positions however must understand that their position, and way of working, will come into question. Learning how to handle criticism, taking feedback on-board, demonstrating a willingness to listen and act on suggestions without alienating team members can be indicators of leaders with credibility.
Not unlike The Apprentice, there will be characters within most organisations or teams that cause friction for a wide range of reasons. In order for teams to work effectively, leaders and managers must know the strengths and development needs of each member, knowing what really ‘makes them tick’. This understanding can help to minimise bust-ups by playing on individual strengths and motivations – as opposed to cornering them on their weaknesses.
Leaders and managers must also be prepared to eradicate poor behaviour. Dan, the team leader, was behaving unacceptably by shouting and bullying his way through the task; aggressive behaviour which was suitably punished. By being kicked out of the competition a clear message was sent to the other contestants about the type of behaviour that wasn’t acceptable.
Taking a firm line with those that don’t fit in with company values and culture, or deliberately try to sabotage it, is crucial to the success of a business. If action isn’t taken, it will serve to disengage the rest of the workforce and businesses could face an exodus of talent in response.
So what can you do to become a more effective leader or manager? I’d suggest starting off with a stock check of where your strengths and development needs lie right now. You can use simple 360-feedback tools or more sophisticated management and leadership assessments that are available. Once you know where you are starting from, be honest with yourself and make changes where necessary.
In conclusion, remember that leading and managing people is not an exact science; what works brilliantly for you one day might fail miserably the next, but if you’re fair with your team, consistent in your approach and most importantly true to yourself you won’t go far wrong.
Julie Rowlett is senior leadership & management consultant at DPG plc.

3 Responses

  1. All in the name of entertainment …..

    I think the entertainment requirements of the time slot will always come first, and who knows how much influence the producers have over who goes or stays.   I guess we should also be mindful of how much editing goes on to present events in as controversial a light as possible…..if some perfectly decent managers were recorded throughout the week, I’m sure an unfair and less than flattering portrayal could result if that’s what the film-makers desired.    But yes, on this occasion, it appears at face value that Lord Sugar got it dead right…. but prepare to be outraged, and mystified in future episodes!


  2. Who is to blame for creating the programme.

    Since the beginning of the series contestants have been encouraged by the behaviour they witness on the programme to be agressive, rude and bossy. The expectation they appear to respond to is that the more of these traits they exhibit the more approval they will gain.

    Has the typical contestant now become the model for todays aspirant managers who like the apprentices believe that the way to get things done is to bully people and humiliate them. The aspirants are encouraged to adopt this behavior because in the past it has been rewarded. Does the fact that Dan has been sacked point to a change in the programmes attitude towards employees and management.

    Is it possible that the next apprentice will be someone who understands that the way to get things done, (Some times called Management) is not to beat others sensless with your own opinion but to listen, support and encourage others who being thus valued will in their turn become more valuable.

    This is a programme  watched by a large number of managers and employees.

    Is it possible that the makers have come to understand how destructive their model of management really is and are begining to acknowledge that this bullying dysfunctional behaviour is not valid.


    – Peter A Hunter


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