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Leadership insights

Is the Apprentice glamorising the leadership of a bygone era?

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

Image of the classic finger pointing "You're fired" gesture of the Apprentice's boss
"You're fired" - what good does that do for Psychological Safety and team dynamics

As a new series of "The Apprentice" has restarted in the UK, and as a Team and Leadership coach, I cannot help wondering how much damage "The Apprentice" is doing to leadership, corporate culture and ultimately to set organisations for performance in a changing business landscape.

Don't get me wrong; this is a very entertaining TV programme, I give it that. But digital has brought a lot of change in business in the past 30 years, and leadership has changed dramatically during that time. The show's format still promotes more of an XXth-century take on leadership that is becoming obsolete and dysfunctional in the more complex business environment.

As we aim to progress organisations and leadership into a new era, it is a shame that the reference on our TV screens keeps glamorising out-of-date references.

For those that have lived in a cave for the past 20 years, "The Apprentice" is a show where 20-something hopefuls apply to join the ranks of a national business mogul and essentially take their interview in the form of televised exercises. In the UK, it shifted from employment to entrepreneurship with a promise of investment for the winner. The hopefuls go through a series of tasks in teams. The winning team gets a perk (carrot), and one contestant gets fired from the losing team (stick). The mogul has a couple of acolytes that follow each team during the tasks as observers. Each task/episode culminates with an O.K.-Corral shootout in the boardroom. Finally, it ends with the corporate guillotine of the words "You're fired" for one of the unfortunate hopefuls—the sad end of the dream. The show was (in)famed by Donald Trump in the US. The British version features Sir Lord Sugar, who oozes respect and likeability, yet plays the cold-hearted grim reaper every episode. It is what you do in leadership, don't you? Be emotionless so you can make the hard choices.

What's wrong with it, you may ask? Corporate culture is, after all, known to be cutthroat. Success is about climbing over others to reach the top (or be the last one standing in the case of the show). And the real-life soap opera of Elon Musk's businesses has only gone further to normalise such a perspective. It seems we are crafting a general perception that a great leader is a know-it-all genius with Ceasarian-powers of (corporate) life & death over its "subjects". Is it what great leaders at the helm of performing businesses are really made of? And do you really have to be a corporate sociopath to climb your way to becoming a business mogul?

The idea of "healthy competition", which will be very familiar to many managers, can also be highly destructive, especially when winning over others becomes more important than winning in the environment. The eyes are off the true goal, any collaboration is gone.

Few observations about "the Apprentice" show:

  • People are put in teams and individually incentivised to win. Their game is not team-play; it is to show good individually. The competition is as internal to the team as it is external. The team goal is often lost over individual sales/pitch/design contributions. And if they lack substance, they overplay the image to have one over the others.

  • In the early tasks, many play it safe. It's best not to stick your neck out, as the Project Manager of the task generally gets the chop indiscriminately if the team loses. Only the overly cocky ones go for it.

  • You have to give it to the contestants; they are highly motivated and ready to go through hell and back. They will put up with a lot. It is not a daily reality in most businesses, and nor should it be.

  • The tasks are generally trivial and do not reflect the complexity of businesses. They are highly pressured in a short time, which contributes to the entertainment. There is much randomness to winning or losing. You pick the high-priced goods, have a wealthy punter that buys them, and are a clever hero. If no such punter shows up, you are a miserable failure for making the wrong choice of price over volume. A lot is influenced by luck more than skills.

  • When it comes to the final moments in the boardroom, it is the epitome of the worst human behaviours triggered by survival instincts. Shouting, diminishing others, backstabbing, etc. Very dramatic. The knives are out.

  • The boardroom also offers a perfect example of selective recollection. We make fun of the candidates being caught up in their own stories by the eagle-eyed observers, but it features a critical element of Complexity thinking. People recall the choices they made very differently with hindsight of the outcome. It is only amplified by the survival instinct to stay in the game.

  • Let's not pretend that this is not without consequences. It creates history. How can people function well as a team on the next task only 24hrs after shooting at each other from the hip in the boardroom? They say revenge is a dish best-served cold...

The show aims to educate about business and promote hard work and sharp choices, which are good values in business. However, it feels increasingly caricatural in relation to modern business, where teamwork, supported by psychological safety and team resilience, is at the core of innovation and seamless execution. Failure is also an essential element of learning and agility. Teams increase their strength from learning and reconfiguring. It is what agility is about. True enough that contestants often have to show their wits in thinking on their feet, but there is not enough of a cycle to reflect as a team. It is mostly about instincts and luck.

So, how far is a caricature of the business world still promoting it? It is all short-term wins and having one over the others, which is the polar opposite of the need for resilient agility and teamwork collaboration.

Businesses in the real world are starting to wake up to the value of teams and how to promote healthy team relationships. Google published an in-house research into what supported performance, research that made reference in the industry. Please see Google's Aristotle Project. This research concluded that "Psychological Safety" was the number one factor in teams' performance. Psychological safety was defined as Team members feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. Other key performance attributes were "Dependability", "Structure and Clarity", "Meaning", and "Impact". It contrasts with "Extroversion of team members" and "Individual performance of team members", which did not record a significant connection to effectiveness.

Every business likes to hail heroes. But like Tina Turner wisely sang, "We don't need another Hero".

Entertaining TV needs heroes and villains. Businesses love heroes too, but they don't need them! In fact, the reliance on heroes is generally a strong indicator of dysfunctional teams and organisations. For instance, when an engineer has to miss on their personal life to nurture a release into production, we praise such a commitment. It is indeed commendable. But it is not a sign of a healthy or performing business; quite the opposite. Promoting individual behaviours which go consistently above the call of duty is often about brushing the dysfunction under the carpet and avoiding the difficult realities. Inaction results, quality hangs by a thread, and resilience is at risk.

The hero culture often results in single-person dependencies. They become the go-to person for everything, and their productivity plummets from the context switching. They become a bottleneck of the system, completely overworked, under constant pressure, and eventually burning out. The hero of one day ends up the casualty of another. Heroes are like corporate timebombs!

With so much disruption on the horizon, a patriarchal or controlling leadership style will no longer cut it. The time to evolve leadership is now.

The last few years have seen unprecedented business disruption, and digital/technology has only gotten started at this game. And if you thought that the world went mad with COVID, as one of those black swan events, it feels like the pond is full of such cygnets: Inflation, the cost of living, the energy crisis, the climate crisis, a war that could escalate, the possibility of a stock market crisis and financial crisis, etc. How can you plan with any certainty? When competition, the world and society are happening faster, centralised patriarchal leadership inevitably becomes a bottleneck of the business. Instead, it calls for ownership and engagement from everybody and distributed cognition and decision-making. No heroes, only intelligent teams that can effectively work collaboratively and adapt to the changing landscape.

A more agitated and complex environment/world is no longer an environment where patriarchal leadership can retain a stake in and control all decisions. Instead, modern businesses need teams that develop their teamwork collaboration performance over time. It means investing in psychological safety, learning agility and resilience of the team relationship over time. It is about teams rather than individualistic heroes. Modern leadership is what "the Apprentice" show is not. And as the show is nearing its 20th anniversary, maybe it is time to rethink and refresh its format before it becomes a business comedy one...

Google Aristotle Project:


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