I am not sure quite why I watch The Apprentice on television. Is it for sheer entertainment? Or is it to learn something about the skills that have made Alan Sugar a fortune, lifting him up from humble beginnings to the House of Lords?

One misconception underlies the whole series. At the start, ten smartly-groomed males compete against ten smartly-groomed females in projects mistakenly called “tasks”. The operation is tackled with each participant running around at high speed or trying to knock each other down as rivals.

Maybe part of the attraction of The Apprentice is to see the more pompous taken down, but they have been set up to fail. As any experienced manager knows, a project team needs to be small and balanced, with each person contributing his or her principal strength. But if this was the setup, would it make such fascinating viewing?

Do the contestants receive constructive feedback? No, Sugar ridicules individuals: ‘Don’t want to hear any more from you’; ‘I am sick of looking at you at the moment – get out that door’. He then gives the whole body of carefully selected individuals a collective comment: ‘About time you had a look at yourselves, because right now you are a total shambles – a complete and utter shambles’.

When Scott (someone with ideas and experience) looked a good bet as project manager, he got fired on the grounds that ‘he did not lead the team – he passes the buck’.

So what is Sugar looking for in a leader? He obviously doesn’t value consultative, consensus-driven skills. Sugar’s idea of leadership is clear when he declares: ‘I am the judge, the jury and the executioner’.

Still, as Basil Fawlty showed in Fawlty Towers, there is much to be learned through negative modelling. If learning how not to do it is a lesson in itself, perhaps fun, negative examples can serve a function after all.

Meredith Belbin

October 2014