I don’t watch a lot of TV, but one of my favorite shows is Celebrity Apprentice. Not that I think it’s quality TV by any means; I just get a kick out of seeing how petty some of these washed up rock stars and former Playboy models can act on national television.
I started watching it with my kids thinking there were leadership tips they could learn for when they get into the business world. Instead I generally use it to teach them how NOT to act when they get in the real world.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the premise, the typical season starts out with a team of eight men against a team of eight women. Each team is given a task per episode to raise money or market a product and Donald Trump announces at the end of the show which team won. One member of the losing team gets fired. They continue to eliminate one person each week, redistributing players to other teams if it becomes lopsided, until it comes down to two finalists. Those two compete against each other in the season finale to determine the Celebrity Apprentice. Some observations I’ve made about the show are:
- Since the object of the game is to avoid getting fired, the participants are playing not to lose rather than playing to win. It’s an interesting dynamic as teammates pretend to be team players, trying to win for the team, but knowing that if their team loses, they could be singled out to be fired. The project manager knows that they are responsible for the task, but if they lose, they can choose two people from the team to bring back into the board room to argue why one of them is the scapegoat – I mean reason – the task failed. This is not an environment that induces risk taking. If the project manager decides on a bold approach and it fails, the PM is most likely to be the one fired. If a team member has an opportunity to take a risk to help the team, they’re better off playing it safe and going below the radar.
- Few celebrities are good leaders. Perhaps the most entertaining part of the show is watching a former actor try to direct a diverse team of people who are more interested in showcasing their own capabilities and looking good, than in helping the team succeed. It results in a team with three or four people vying for control, when there is supposed to only be one designated leader. The test of wills often ends up with a weak leader submitting to one or more of their team members. If the team loses, the team members throw the PM under the bus for being a weak leader.
- Unprofessional behavior in the board room. Donald Trump’s board room has the appearance of a very formal setting. A long beautiful conference room table where Trump and his two offspring advisors, Donald Junior and Ivanka, sit on one side while the participants submissively sit (or stand) on the other. It’s a beautifully decorated room in the prestigious Trump Tower in New York City. Despite its solemn setting, this is where the team members get nasty. F-bombs and other obscenities are regularly bleeped out, team members make accusations of others’ behavior and lack of assistance and team members have been known to cry. The Donald often sits and lets two or more team members go at each other, essentially enabling the petty back-biting.
So I sit watching this circus with my family and criticize the above behaviors pointing out to my kids the poor management and leadership skills that the various contestants display. But the more I think about it, the more I realize how real world it is. I see these violations in the business world all the time.
People are always worried about either getting fired or getting passed up for promotion for screwing up. It’s much safer to keep your head down and just do what you’re asked than to try something bold and risky to increase the odds of failure. And why make a suggestion for a new way to innovate your organization’s process and risk pissing off the manager that designed the current one?
A former actor may have been nominated, or even won an Oscar, but it’s no indication that they can manage. The same can be said for business managers. Usually the most productive worker bee gets promoted to be the boss when the opportunity arises. It’s no indication they will be good at managing. It’s a completely different set of skills. Leadership requires a combination of confidence, humility, empathy, decision making and many other abilities. Assuming that a good research analyst can lead a team is as illogical as assuming a good actor can do it.
Professionalism is no better in the business world than in Trump’s board room. I’ve heard f-bombs in the nicest mahogany lined offices and in the offices of corporate presidents. And people get thrown under the bus on a regular basis, both privately and publicly.
So it brings me to the question I should ask myself before I use it as a business lesson for my kids: Does Celebrity Apprentice simply prepare us for how business works? Or does it point out all that’s bad about corporate politics to teach us how not to act?
I’d love to hear your take on this. In the meantime, maybe we should just switch to watching The Office.
About the author: Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting (www.Consulting101Book.com) He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.