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Lessons from The Apprentice

So, The Apprentice has once more taken hold of my life every Wednesday night.  Just as in previous years, I am captivated by the apparent idiocy of the decisions made by the competitors, the backbiting and the lack of emotional intelligence they display.    Then I watch Dara Ó Briain interview the ‘fired’ candidate immediately after the BBC1 programme and I’m left thinking, “how could someone so pleasant and well-rounded allow themselves to behave so badly during the course of the competition itself?”      And each week I remind myself that The Apprentice is actually “Big Brother” in the Board Room, a game show cleverly edited for entertainment.   These young business hopefuls are not idiots.   They learn a great deal from the experience, even if what they learn is more about self-promotion than profit and loss.   And anyway, I’m hooked.

But I am perturbed that young people watching the programme see a parade of behaviours, skills and attitudes that are a long way from what I think good business practice looks like.   As one participant put it this week, “there are no friends in this house; this is business.”    I hope and trust that young people see through the smoke and mirrors and recognise that The Apprentice is not business.   As for the participants, I am sure that, when these aspirant Niccolò Machiavellis refind their feet in the real world, they recognise that friends are important, it’s possible to make big mistakes and survive – and that Lord Sugar is not God.

I’ve been rereading Dale Carnegie over the last few weeks.   It’s nearly a century ago that he wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People and I found his writing as persuasive and relevant as ever.    So, taking Carnegie’s principles as a starting point, I offer some leadership skills, behaviours and attitudes to The Apprentice wannabes as the sort of things they should be aspiring to, once the cameras have stopped rolling.   These were first outlined by David Hakala, writing in HR World in 2008.   I might add, for what it’s worth, that I too continue to aspire to these – and find myself, all too often, falling short.  What follows are mainly Hakala’s words, occasionally altered for for a British audience.

Hakala suggests that you should start with clear communication of a vision.    Whether you know already what it is you want to achieve, or whether you need to get a team around you to think it through, without a clear understanding of your desire, you won’t be able to attain it.   Without bragging, (because bragging gets people’s backs ups and is anyway very unBritish and therefore, obviously, not a good thing), communicate your vision to others.   Make your vision one that belongs not just to you, but to others and you are well on the way to making it a reality.

Integrity is the integration of outward actions and inner values. A person of integrity is the same on the outside and on the inside. Such an individual can be trusted because he or she never veers from inner values, even when it might be expeditious to do so. A leader must have the trust of followers and therefore must display integrity.

Honest dealings, predictable reactions, well-controlled emotions, and an absence of tantrums and harsh outbursts are all signs of integrity. A leader who is centred in integrity will be more approachable by followers.

Dedication means spending whatever time or energy is necessary to accomplish the task at hand. A leader inspires dedication by example, doing whatever it takes to complete the next step toward the vision. By setting an excellent example, leaders can show followers that there are no nine-to-five jobs on the team, only opportunities to achieve something great.

Magnanimity means giving credit where it is due. A magnanimous leader ensures that credit for successes is spread as widely as possible throughout their organisation. Conversely, a good leader takes personal responsibility for failures. This sort of reverse magnanimity helps other people feel good about themselves and draws the team closer together. To spread the fame and take the blame is a hallmark of effective leadership.

Leaders with humility recognise that they are no better or worse than other members of the team. A humble leader is not self-effacing but rather tries to elevate everyone. Leaders with humility also understand that their status does not make them a god. Mahatma Gandhi is a role model for Indian leaders, and he pursued a “follower-centric” leadership role.

Openness means being able to listen to new ideas, even if they do not conform to the usual way of thinking. Good leaders are able to suspend judgment while listening to others’ ideas, as well as accept new ways of doing things that someone else thought of. Openness builds mutual respect and trust between leaders and followers, and it also keeps the team well supplied with new ideas that can further its vision.

Creativity is the ability to think differently, to get outside of the box that constrains solutions. Creativity gives leaders the ability to see things that others have not seen and so lead followers in new directions. The most important question that a leader can ask is, “What if … ?” Possibly the worst thing a leader can say is, “I know this is a stupid question … ”

Fairness means dealing with others consistently and justly. A leader must check all the facts and hear everyone out before passing judgment. He or she must avoid leaping to conclusions based on incomplete evidence. When people feel they that are being treated fairly, they reward a leader with loyalty and dedication.

Assertiveness is not the same as aggressiveness. Rather, it is the ability to clearly state what one expects so that there will be no misunderstandings. A leader must be assertive to get the desired results. Along with assertiveness comes the responsibility to clearly understand what followers expect from their leader.

Many leaders have difficulty striking the right amount of assertiveness, according to a study in the February 2007 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the APA (American Psychological Association). It seems that being underassertive or overassertive may be the most common weakness among aspiring leaders.

A sense of humour is vital to relieve tension and boredom, as well as to defuse hostility. Effective leaders know how to use humour to energize followers. Humour is a form of power that provides some control over the work environment. And simply put, humour fosters good camaraderie.

Intrinsic traits such as intelligence, good looks, height and so on are not necessary to become a leader. And it also isn’t necessary to be able to survive two months under the constant supervision of television crews, Karren Brady and Nick Hewer.

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  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    Well said, John!

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    Once again, Mr May hits the proverbial nail squarely on the head. I've heard him described by someone as an educational guru with attitude. That kind of sums him up!

  3. John May John May

    Thank you, anonymous. I am blushing!

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