World Class Faculty & Research / April 1, 2005

Grading The Apprentice

By Henry P. Sims, Jr.
From the Spring '05 issue of SMITHbusiness

OK, I confess I'm addicted to The Apprentice. And judging by conversations in my MBA class, so are my students. I'm no TV critic, but I would give the program, and executive Donald Trump, an A for entertainment. From week to week, we tune in and wonder which of the aspiring executives will survive, and we wait for the next twist from The Trumpster.

But good entertainment isn't always good management or good leadership. As a professor of management and organization, watching the show can be as much pain as pleasure. In every episode I see some lessons that are the exact opposite of the lessons I want my students to learn. Here are a few examples.

Teamwork: F
Teamwork is a key component of the MBA program at Smith, because effective teamwork is crucial to the success of an organization. Recruiters always cite ability to work in teams as one of their top criteria for new hires. Does The Apprentice encourage participants to work in teams?

Each week, one of the participant teams is forced to vote one of the team members off the program. The gaming structure of the situation demands that participants work in competition with team members, pitting them against each other in a Darwinian struggle for survival. Moreover, especially in the board room scenes, CEO Trump directly encourages infighting by asking questions such as Why are you better that the other? Why should I choose you rather than the others?

This behavior may mirror real life, in the sense that employees do compete with each other for promotion and advancement. Yet I maintain that the show encourages interpersonal conflict to a degree that would be dysfunctional for any team in a real-life organization. The Apprentice receives an F for teamwork.

Leadership: F
The Apprentice rewards a certain type of leader: the authoritarian. Leaders who facilitate and motivate through team member participation are seen as weak, while micromanagers are rewarded. Team leaders are often criticized for not taking charge which seems to mean that leaders issue orders and enforce their decisions, while followers are compliant and deferential.

In the modern business world, however, effective leaders are those who motivate followers by involving them, not ordering them about.

Encouragement of Risk Taking: F
In one episode, a participant put himself on the line to support his team. Behaving in a confident and supportive manner, the participant took a risk. Mr. Trump saw this risk taking as recklessness, and responded with his now famous epitaph: You're fired! The message to the troops was clear; risk taking is punished in this organization.

But this is a poor management strategy. Effective leaders always reward risk taking, even if the risk does not always pay off. Creativity and risk taking are essential for innovation, and creating a climate which encourages employees to take risks is a real challenge for today's corporate leaders.

Team Empowerment: A
There is one aspect of The Apprentice, however, that I really admire. Each week participants are formed into teams and given a clear objective to accomplish without interference or meddling from their CEO. The team is then rated according to the team accomplishment. This is a good example of team empowerment an excellent management strategy.

Overall Grade: D
The Apprentice is saved from the ignominy of an F because of the team empowerment the participants experience in their weekly tasks. But don't take the show as your model for corporate leadership!

Henry P. Sims, Jr. is professor of management and organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, College Park, Md.

Media Contact

Greg Muraski
Media Relations Manager
301-892-0973 Mobile 

About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

Back to Top