by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld
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March 2, 2004
Given all the media hoopla you'd think that NBC's hit "reality" show featuring Donald Trump was the answer to the nation's urgent search for credible leadership models in politics and business. Yet despite Mr. Trump's claims that "The Apprentice" should be required viewing at the nation's top business schools, I don't see how weekly viewings of a billionaire shouting "You're fired!" will benefit tomorrow's leaders.
So why are 18 million Americans glued to the puffery, pushiness and deception of "The Apprentice"? In part it's because we are fascinated with train wrecks -- witness the public's seemingly endless interest in the Martha Stewart saga, the ruinous spending of rogue CEOs like Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski, and the abuses of Adelphia's Rigas family.
But such rapt attention should hardly be confused with admiration. Many CEOs I talk with shudder at this ill-timed portrait of corporate leadership just when we need to restore trust in corporate values. Recent Gallup surveys indicate 75% of the general public believes that corruption is widespread in business. With its "real business" setting, Mr. Trump's show taps into the cynical view that business is all about chest-pounding and winning at all costs.
Rather than show inspirational team leadership and the building of coherent cultures, "The Apprentice" teams are designed as circular firing squads -- hardly the staffing pattern of an enduring enterprise. The selection process resembles a game of musical chairs at a Hooters restaurant where sexual baiting and pleading is confused with effective salesmanship. The assigned team-projects neglect the core functions of leadership, such as integrity, invention and inspiration. No new goods or services are created, no business innovations surface, and no societal problems are solved.
Instead, we see people hawking sex, clothes, booze, water, bags of dirt, more sex, and celebrity access. Mr. Trump's original design when first pitching the show in 2001 was to call it "The Billionaire" and to give four contestants 30 minutes to try to spend a million dollars -- again not skilled leadership in action.
Adding to the dysfunctional design is the strange ratings-inspired selection criteria itself. The most odious contestants are retained long after general condemnation by team members, the general public and even Mr. Trump's own on-air lieutenants. Contestants are fired by The Donald for failing to be sufficiently confrontational or for favoring candor over loyalty in the boardroom. Deceptive presentations of product value and misleading negotiating tactics are encouraged. These are not qualities for long-term commercial relationships. No wise party, in reality, would be a business partner of Trump's TV winners for a second or third transaction.
Yet Mr. Trump's gleeful push of another crew member off the gangplank at the close of each show keeps us coming back for more.
I regret that I have but one Facebook identity to give to the cause of freedom.
OccupyTucsonNapsky’s slogans written on the mast are: (1) There’s No “I” in Team, (2) You’re either with us or against us, (3) The ends justify the means, (4) Better Red than dead, and (5) UNITY!
-- A Traitor Walks the Plank on Occupy Tucson's Blundership Hallelujah!, by Tara Carreon
Our curiosity over the tortured logic behind his mysterious choices has a magnetic draw as does the raw power to change the fate of someone else's life at your pleasure. Roman crowds packed the Colosseum to watch the gladiators battle each other and loved the Emperor's glance to the onlookers before condemning the loser to death.
A quarter-century ago, NBC discovered this same formula in its mindlessly cruel but spellbindingly popular "The Gong Show," where contestants in a talent show were ejected from the program by egomaniacal host/producer Chuck Barris pounding a gong. Mr. Trump's pursed lips are the equivalent of Barris's gong. Indeed, "The Apprentice" is not a corporate reality show, it's a business gong-show.
["The Gong Show" theme plays]
[Chuck Barris] Ladies and gentlemen, this act --
Ah! Oh, this is so good! I love this, man. This next act answers the age-old question:
If you wear a cellophane -- if you -- Whish! OK.
[Chuck Barris] If you wear -- ha ha -- a cellophane suit ...
can people clearly see you're nuts? I don't know. A little humor, folks. All the way from Pacoima ...
[Cheers and applause]
[Mick Donnelly] [Off-key] Raindrops keep falling on my head
Just like the guy
Whose feet are too big for his bed
Nothin' seems to fit those
Raindrops are fallin' on my head
They keep fallin'
So I just did me some talkin' to the sun
And I said I didn't like
The way he got things done
Sleepin' on the job, those ...
[Chuck Barris] Who could have known there were so many Americans just waiting for the opportunity to get on TV and make an ass out of themselves?
[Mick Donnelly] Raindrops keep fallin' on my head
But that doesn't mean my eyes
Will soon be turnin' red
[Mick Donnelly] Cryin's not for me, 'cause
I'm never gonna stop the rain by complainin'
Because I'm --
[Chuck Barris] We'll be back with more stuff right after this message.
-- Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, directed by George Clooney, Starring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts
Clearly, Mr. Trump's adventurous career offers some valuable leadership lessons. Students could no doubt learn a thing or two from his rapid ascent in the real-estate industry beyond his father's empire, his short-lived foray into presidential politics in 1999, the demise of Trump Airlines, the near-collapse of his own mighty real-estate empire in 1990, and his triumphant comeback. Like the powerful real-estate titans of the past -- the Reichmann brothers, Robert Campeau, and A. Alfred Taubman -- Mr. Trump could have stumbled badly. But he didn't. Indeed, he has not just recovered from his missteps, he has thrived.
Unfortunately, the "The Apprentice" won't tell you how Mr. Trump's done it -- or how long it will last. Has The Donald built a Trump Organization that will survive him the way his sponsors' founders -- GE's Thomas Edison and NBC's Robert Sarnoff -- built enduring enterprises larger than their own considerable egos? With such personalized promotion, will the Trump Empire survive the antics of Emperor Trump? Stay tuned.
Mr. Sonnenfeld, a professor and associate dean at the Yale School of Management, is author of "The Hero's Farewell" (Oxford University Press, 1991).