OK, I CONFESS. I'm addicted to The Apprentice. And given conversations in my MBA class at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, so are my students. It's great theater that captures the viewing audience. I'm no TV critic, but I would give the program, and its prominent executive, Donald Trump, an "A" for entertainment. From week to week, we tune in for the next twist.
But the start of the show's third season also invites the question: Is good entertainment also good leadership? How does Donald Trump stack up as a leader? Would I want him to be the leader of my company? Most of all, can I take lessons of leadership from Donald Trump and The Apprentice?
He certainly talks a good show when it comes to teamwork, but does he really encourage the participants to work in teams? Each week, members of one of the participating teams face off against one another in the boardroom, resulting in the firing of one of them.
The gaming structure of the situation demands that participants work in competition with one another, under a facade of "teamwork." In fact, it's clear Trump's leadership is intended to set team member against member in a survival-of-the-fittest scenario. Moreover, especially in the boardroom scenes, he directly encourages infighting by asking questions such as "Why are you better than the others? Why should I choose you rather than the others?"
Trump's fans might say that this behavior mirrors real life, in that employees compete with one another for promotion and advancement. Yet, I maintain that his overt behavior encourages interpersonal conflict to an excessive degree that would be dysfunctional for any team and any organization. As a leader who creates a culture of teamwork, Trump receives an "F."
Let's also examine the type of leadership that Trump seems to encourage. He rewards and promotes the traditional, take-charge or authoritarian leader. In one episode, a participant exclaimed, "I'm making an executive decision!" This seems to be a catch phrase that receives frequent use on the program by Trump and his associates. Team leaders are often criticized for not "taking charge," a traditional view of leadership as exclusively top-down.
Team leaders who motivate through team-member participation are seen by the Trump executives as weak, while micromanagers are rewarded. The Trump view of leadership is indeed traditional and authoritarian; leaders are meant to direct and enforce their decisions. Followers are meant to be compliant and deferential. Any other type of leadership is not acceptable. An "F" for Trump here. Effective leaders motivate followers by involving them, not ordering them about.
Trump is especially revealing in his behavior with his two associates, who are charged with the task of observing and criticizing the teams.
He does provide a perfunctory "What do you think?" question during each episode, but it's clear that he alone is the decision-maker, and the deference and sycophancy of his associates are palpable. One of my students called the associates "Trump's flunkies."
Trump's behavior presents a model of authority-based, top-down leadership. The participants observe this behavior and quickly adapt in imitation. Again, "F" for Trump. Effective leaders encourage followers to speak their minds; they don't demand blind obedience.
Trump is impulsive in his decision making.
Unlimited power combined with impulsiveness is dangerous in a leader. In one episode, Trump fired a participant who put himself on the line to support his team. Behaving in a confident and supportive manner, the participant took a risk for the team. Trump saw this risk-taking as recklessness and responded with his now-famous dismissal: "You're fired!"
The message to the troops was clear: Risk taking is punished. Trump again receives an "F." Effective leaders reward risk taking, even if the risk does not always pay off.
Does Trump have any redeeming characteristics as a leader? There is one admirable aspect of the program. Participants are formed into teams and given a clear objective to accomplish each week; then the team is rated according to the team accomplishment. To be fair to Trump, this is clearly a situation in which the teams are empowered within certain limits, and he does stay "hands off" as they go about accomplishing their task. This part of the program is a good example of team empowerment.
But, alas, Trump, I'm afraid your overall grade for leadership would be a "D." Trump is saved from the ignominy of an "F" because he empowers the teams in their weekly task. But his leadership is not to be admired.
Trump is colorful, but flamboyancy is not charisma. He is impulsive, overly directive, authoritarian and punitive, and demands false admiration. His is not a model of leadership that I recommend to anyone.
So why then does Trump have so many admirers? Not only has he become an icon of a unique brand of flashy speculation, conspicuous consumption and business pizazz that ran rampant in the 1980s, but people have bought his books. We're ready to follow whatever secrets he can share about his success in the business world.
I'd argue that what Trump inspires in his followers is more of a cult of personality than mentorship based on leadership. We love him. We hate him. We love to hate him. As with other reality television, his popular show is not so much about the worthiness of Donald Trump or his business practices and principles than it is about his capacity to provide us with a good time.
Henry P. Sims Jr. is professor of management and organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park.