The Apprentice: Ten Leadership Lessons I Learned

The Apprentice: Ten Leadership Lessons I Learned

The DonaldI’ve been watching NBC’s Trumpfest, The Apprentice, since it began four seasons ago. At first I watched because it was a Burnett production, and my wife and I were enjoying Survivor. So, we figured since Mark Burnett was the wunderkind of unReality TV, it would be worth a watch. Now in its fifth season, my wife has stopped watching, but I still catch it on Tivo.

I’m not a particular fan of Donald Trump, conspicuous consumption, materialism, the almighty dollar, cut-throat business dealings, white-collar back-stabbing, greed, jealousy, petty rivalries, or getting fired. Its not entirely schadenfreude—the joy of watching others experience pain—it’s more like the fascination of seeing justice served when incompetent workers get axed mixed with cheers for the scrappy underdog I want to win. Whatever the source of my fascination, I’m surprised my date with Donald has lasted into the fifth season. But it’s not about Donald. Not for me. I couldn’t care less how financially successful he is: his opulent lifestyle alternately bores and sickens me. And I just don’t “get” the awe these Trump-ites hold for him. No, it’s not Trump. I watch each episode with horror thinking, How can the head of any corporation possibly think these knuckle-draggers have what it takes to run a food pantry, much less a major enterprise? Each week is another slow, sweaty train-wreck, and I can’t look away.

I think, of all the seasons so far, the only one where I really cared about the finale and who won, was last Randall Pinkett, Apprentice winneryear, when the scary-smart, charming, Southern Baptist, Randal Pinkett, was chosen to be the apprentice. I had been pulling for him the entire season, seeing in him a young man with great emotional intelligence matched with good practical intelligence as well. That he was charming, handsome, affable, and a natural leader with clear integrity were all pluses. I thought he might be a believer, and when it was confirmed I was intrigued. What would motivate a brilliant young Christian to follow after a materialistic, ego-driven, business superstar? I rooted for him, but I also admired his finale competitor Rebecca Jarvis. In the end, Trump hired Randal—and when Randal was given the unique opportunity to bring Rebecca on-board as well, he balked. “This isn’t The Apprenti.” Apparently, there can be only one, in Randal’s book—despite his three predecessors. My respect for him took a temporary nosedive, and I was confused (but see Randal’s blog entry). So were others.

Values are a tricky thing and it’s hard to judge, from a distance, through the lens of selectively edited video, anything that was going on there. But, strangely, it’s no easier figuring out what’s going on in my own office. Working with normal, everyday people is fraught with misunderstandings, presumptions, biased conclusions, and misperceptions.

Throughout the five seasons I have watched each episode, taking mental notes. Note to self: don’t bad-mouth coworkers; I never know when they’re going to turn out to be an ally, a friend, or a motivated enemy, and it’s just plain mean. Or, Note to self: life doesn’t always come in binary yes-and-no, “hired” or “fired” dichotomies. Sometimes everybody wins. Sometimes everybody loses. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart. In each season I saw a microcosm of the workaday world, with rivalries, jealousies, pettiness, and ego writ large. For me, The Apprentice is a little more than a reality game-show … it’s also a weekly lesson on what makes good leadership.

To that end, I offer ten lessons I’ve learned, in no particular order. These are not the only observations I’ve had, but I gotta draw the line somewhere. So these are the ten you get.

  1. Brainstorming is not about defending my ideas.

    I can’t count how many times I yell at the TV when these “cream of the crop” klutzes hold a meeting to “brainstorm” ideas—and nobody knows how to do it. Brainstorming is not about putting a pet idea out there and defending it against all comers. It’s not about evaluating each idea on its merits as it comes forth. It’s not about finding a decent idea as fast as I can and running with it. Brainstorming and idea-generation require lateral thinking. It requires that I suspend judgment while the slumbering dreamer inside wakes up. My first ideas are usually not the best. Neither are the second, nor the third. In order to get past the “low hanging fruit” and get really creative I have to keep spewing out ideas, get past the cliches, suspend my judgment, and riff.

    Ideas should be bouncing off the walls, spilling off the table, dripping off the white-board. Ideally, it’s a flurry of conversation, a-ha! moments, excitement, focus, inspiration, and perspiration. Sometimes the best brainstorming meetings are kick-started with individual, private sessions, but usually (in my experience) the less time one has to bond with a pet idea, the better the brainstorming is. In a brainstorming session, nobody’s the boss. Nobody’s the judge. Nobody evaluates. All ideas are machine-gunned quickly—we’ll sort ‘em out when we’re done.

    On The Apprentice, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this happen. Of course, this may be due to editing, but I don’t think so. Because, in the real world, I’m not seeing it happening there, either. People in business want their meetings to be “efficient.” Decisions have to be made. Time is money. Frivolous pursuits get axed. And what’s more frivolous than fifty minutes of useless ideas and only ten minutes of “productive” discussion? Right. Let’s just cut to the last ten minutes, please?

    Good leaders should know how to brainstorm. Not only does it produce a better range of potentially successful ideas, everybody shares the idea from the start.

  2. Building consensus requires dialog not argument.

    Week after week I see people on this show that are supposed to be acting as a team, but instead they are fractious and divided. The project manager makes a decision, somebody disagrees, the PM puts her foot down. Case closed. The result? An insulted and bitter rivalry is formed and coworkers hold back. Worse, they subtly sabotage the effort. And somebody goes home with a stiff lip, holding back the tears. Good TV drama. Lousy teamwork.

    Consensus is not about forcing everybody into the same mold. It’s about communicating a vision, an idea, a goal, and persuading my team members to share a vision, idea, and goal. It helps, of course, if we’ve had a good brainstorming session (above) and everybody’s already excited about the innate brilliance of their shared idea. But even if not, the successful leader has to build rapport through example and through dialog, persuading team members to catch the vision.

    Good leaders are good communicators. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good talkers. Communication requires listening as much as talking, and people won’t sign on to the program if they aren’t being listened to and heard. Good leaders also know how to persuade, they know how to marshal logic when the person they are persuading needs a logical rationale. They know how to touch the heart when somebody needs to be inspired. They know how to address risks when somebody is worried about outcomes.

    Of course, sometimes good leaders need to make a decision even if the team is scattered. And that’s when it pays to be a good communicator, again. As long as people know their concerns and interests aren’t being ignored, and as long as they feel valued, they’ll be more likely to give their best work and not hold back.

  3. Leaders must ask questions … and listen to the answers.

    Building on the theme of communication, I see so many of these job applicants talking, talking, talking. They talk over each other, they interrupt, they yell, they roll their eyes, they fail to make their points clearly, they wield “you” statements like javelins and waste energy and time attacking and defending. Effective leaders know how to step back from a fomenting debate and start asking questions. Ask the right questions, in fact, and I may lead my coworker to the conclusion I had in mind all along. But if I ask questions and ignore the answers, I’m getting nowhere.

    Even if I’m not the “boss” or the project manager, or the team leader, asking the right questions can provoke my leadership into changing direction—especially if I can dialog and respond to followup questions from leadership. If I’m willing to cede “ownership” of an idea, if I’m willing to let my manager take credit for brilliant ideas, I can move leadership toward my point of view by asking questions that lead them to a change of mind. (See: “Socratic method — Wikipedia“) But no matter what, if I ask a question, I must be prepared to handle the answer. Even—especially—when it’s an answer I don’t like.

  4. Success is not built on character assassination.

    Remember the old Gore Vidal quote?

       “It’s not enough that I succeed.
       Others must fail.”

    As tongue-in-cheek at it sounds, 80 percent of the world seems to live by this philosophy, and we see this in The Apprentice week, after week, after week. If I want to lead effectively, and be successful in life, I am convinced we eliminate this attitude from our minds.

    It is, unfortunately, basic to our nature, I suppose. It’s always lurking about, this joy we have at seeing others fail miserably, especially if it means that we get a little bit farther ahead in the game. But crossing the finish line when my opponent has been knee-capped is no victory. It’s merely failure to lose well.

    True success is measured—at least in part—by how others around me have succeeded. Good leaders make their management look good. Good leaders make their coworkers look good. Good leaders make their subordinates look good. And when it’s all said and done, and everybody looks great, I go home a winner. Even if I didn’t get the credit I think I deserve.

    Leadership is not about tarnishing others so they can bask in my radiance. They won’t. They’ll be sharpening their knives as I wink at myself in the mirror.

  5. Leadership requires delegation.

    It is the folly of tired managers everywhere that they trust nobody to do a job well. Call it perfectionism, trust deficit, egotism, short-sightedness, or pride. It doesn’t matter. In the end nobody wins if nobody contributes. I’ll go home exhausted (if I go home at all) and they’ll go home knowing they’re undervalued.

    People follow leaders who recognize value. If I am unwilling to delegate, I am hoarding value by refusing to let someone in my group bring their skills to the table. At the end of the day, this is an insult.

    Leaders who know how to delegate also know how to communicate (back to that theme again). If I want somebody to do a job in a certain way, I should communicate that expectation and get feedback so I know the delegatee is on the same page with me. If I don’t care how it’s done—just that it’s done—then delegate and get the heck out of the way. Personally, I prefer this style of leadership—not only in my own bosses, but for any of my subordinates. Usually, I don’t care about style or methodology: I just want results. But in order to get those results, I have to at least describe exactly the result I want.

    And it’s not fair being disappointed if I delegate something and it doesn’t match the idea in my head if I never took the time to dialog.

  6. Financial success reveals nothing about life success.

    This should be a no-brainer, but every week we see some Trump-style plush this, or lavish that. Trump is the king of extravagant and wasteful excess. This has been an American malaise for decades, and I cringe whenever I hear apprentice candidates use their financial worth to bully somebody into submission. People’s worth is not measured in dollars, and when I get thrown under the bus, my cash will disperse and my possessions rot. What remains on this world after I move on will be the mark I left on the bottom line of human hearts. What lives did I touch? Did I love? Did I give aid? Did I comfort? Did I teach? Did I celebrate? Did I rejoice?

    Good leaders ask: When I die, what do I want said at my funeral?

  7. Passion reveals my direction.

    On a recent episode, Senator Charles Schumer mentioned his “Monday Morning Test” to the project winners. To wit: “When you wake up Monday morning, do you want to go to work?” Everybody should be lucky enough to be able to earn a good living doing something they are passionate about. If I want to lead, lead with my passion. Do what I love, don’t force myself in a mold. But even if I’m stuck in an apparently dead-end job, or if I’m forced to work for lower wages than I deserve at a job I are frankly bored with—or hate—I can still lead with my passions. Learn to love excellence and a job well done. Learn to love well-formed, healthy relationships with my coworkers. Learn to love making others look good. Nobody ever led well who hated their job, hated their subordinates, or hated their bosses.

    If I can’t find a hook—something to love about my job—admit defeat and move on. Apply for a job that suits my strengths. My career should not be about strengthening my weaknesses—I should play to my strengths. My passions and my strengths are innate and God-given—go with that and I’ll find myself leading in new areas rather than being a passive observer merely along for the ride.

    But passions can be acquired, too. And that means exposing myself to new hobbies, new skills, new books, new ideas, and new relationships. Life isn’t one long dreary railroad track clattering into the horizon: it’s a trek through a wilderness of novelty—but only if I get out of the caboose and explore. There will be seasons in life. Vanishingly few people ever do for a career what they studied in college. Most people do not retire at 65 doing what they began at 25. Embrace my passions, develop them, and when the opportunity arises, embrace change.

  8. Leaders create loyalty by being loyal.

    Loyalty is a two-way street. No leader will long succeed in a culture of paranoia and fear—not by leading anyway. If I am not loyal to my own leadership and loyal to my subordinates, knives will be sharpened. And I will eventually feel the prick of fate in my backside. In a few episodes one candidate would stick up for another, fiercely, and without compromise. Whenever that happened, the air was sucked out of the room, leaving behind shock and awe. True loyalty is a rare thing, and a beauty to behold.

    Loyalty, it seems to me, is a function of commitment and love. Loyalty doesn’t mean I ignore others weaknesses or gloss over their failures—loyalty is honest, but fiercely protective. Good leaders don’t throw their subordinates under the bus. Good leaders give value, and the highest form of value one can receive is love. People will follow loyal leaders up and down the cliffs of insanity because love begets love and loyalty inspires loyalty.

    Certainly, the halls of corporate greed are lined with Gordon Gekko placards. And there are many lions of industry who have paved their way to the top on the broken bodies of subordinates. But that is the way of dictators, bullies, and emotional criminals. These are not shepherds, they are wolves driving the herd they prey upon.

  9. Leaders know their weaknesses and admit failures.

    There is in our culture today a prevailing sense that weakness is a flaw, not a feature, and weaknesses must be eradicated, strengthened, or veiled. But a moment’s thought reveals that it is impossible for anybody to excel at everything. Successful leaders know their strengths as well as they know their weaknesses. Apologizing for neither, they use both to their advantage. Strong leaders delegate where they are weak, and capitalize on their strengths. In the way that a gifted sprinter doesn’t focus excessive training on biceps and curls, effective leaders don’t waste effort shoring up weaknesses—they play to their strengths. Further, when a leader delegates responsibility in an area of weakness, he gives value to his coworkers.

    Similarly, it is impossible for everyone to win at everything. In every sporting competition I know of, losers outnumber the winners. But we treat losing—failure—like a disease that is somehow catching. Perhaps it is, because everybody will fail at something—especially when we ignore our weaknesses. Every great leader has cherished their losses and failures as opportunities to learn, to grow, and to adapt.

    Week after week, on The Apprentice, I see these failed project managers return to the Trump board room ready to talk over their teammates, assign blame, shift responsibility, and foment suspicion in an effort to dodge defeat. Rarely does anyone take responsibility for their failures without attempting to tarnish a teammate, and rarely does anyone admit to a weakness. Their models are the unapproachable titans of commerce who live above the masses in impregnable castles of lavish victory. But the reality is, success in life and effective moral leadership embraces weakness and defeat, for that is where progress is truly made.

  10. Emotional Intelligence trumps Mensa scores.

    Emotional Intelligence : 10th Anniversary EditionIn the past few decades since Daniel Goleman and Howard Gardner began writing about social and emotional intelligence (the ability to manage emotions in oneself and in others), there’s been a lot of talk about the role of emotions and IQ. Till now the prevailing theory has been that IQ—rational cognitive abilities—has been the greatest predictor of financial and career success. While it’s true that there is a correlation, more evidence is being found that success in life is also found through managing emotions. And, perhaps, that kind of success is more enjoyable—even if it’s not more Trump-like and luxurious.

    Maybe we have only the editors to thank, but I’m frequently amazed at the rage, the pettiness, the jealousies, and the bitterness that erupts between members on the same team. And while I would expect the Trump board room to be free of emotional outbursts, it gets amazingly heated and disrespectful at times. Candidates address each other and Trump himself in ways that I would never dream of speaking in front of my management. Arguments break out that could have been averted, tears leak that beg for consolation—but none is forthcoming. Hatred ferments, anger boils, plots thicken. Payback slouches near.

    Leaders who people respect and willingly follow know how to be loyal, they know how to love, communicate, build consensus, and inspire joy. Great leaders are not only bright, but they have a high emotional IQ. Indeed, they bear the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

    May that ever be so with us.

I didn’t expect this post to grow so long, my apologies to you, my Faithful Readers.

I welcome feedback.

[tags]BlogRodent, Pentecostal, leadership, ethics, business, Donald-Trump, Trump, Randal-Pinkett, Rebecca-Jarvis, Daniel-Goleman, Howard-Gardner, emotional-intelligence, IQ, The-Apprentice, Apprentice, fruit-of-the-Spirit, leadership-lessons, top10, top-ten-list, top-10-list[/tags]

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