Leadership lessons from The Apprentice and Undercover Boss

Patrick Wright from the Darla Moore School of Business highlights the leadership styles displayed in reality TV programmes. He warns that the tournament-style promotions seen in The Apprentice do not create altruistic leaders.

In the US, the reality TV show The Apprentice has inspired a number of business schools to begin offering classes or lectures using the show as a basis for learning about leadership, conflict and group dynamics. 

Multiple tasks narrow the contestants down to two finalists until one is declared the winner. This exemplifies what economists refer to as a ‘tournament theory’ of promotion in organisations where advancements reduce the number of contestants until only one receives the top job.

Winners in such processes display high levels of ambition, confidence, energy and intelligence. However, tournaments can also incite people to behave self-interestedly, potentially to the point of what economists refer to as ‘opportunism’. This is defined as ‘self-interest seeking with guile’, meaning individuals disregard who might get hurt in the pursuit of their goal.

In addition, as they win at each stage, members’ confidence can overflow into overconfidence and even hubris, thinking that they are the smartest.

Contrast this with Undercover Boss, another business-based reality TV series. In this programme CEOs disguise themselves and work alongside employees at low levels of the organisation, often performing tasks that are beyond their capabilities.

As the employees teach them how to perform basic tasks, they also share their frustrations with how the organisation is run. They complain about the lack of resources available and the ineffectiveness of policies dictated from an out-of-touch head office.

However, they often display a deep knowledge of and caring for the customer. At the end of each episode, the leader calls the employees to the head office to reveal him/herself, and to announce changes and rewards.

In contrast to the tournament theories, Undercover Boss shows how the experience of spending time with the lowest employees doing what might be considered menial work leads to opposite outcomes.

Instead of only promoting opportunism, leaders begin to exhibit more altruistic behaviour. Usually the boss, touched by the personal plight of a low-paid employee, pays for them to get a new house, take a much-needed vacation, or cut down some outstanding debts.

In addition, rather than reinforcing their own expertise, the experience proves how little they really know about how their organisation works, and how deeply they need the expertise of lower level employees. In other words, instead of hubris, the experience develops humility.

I bring this up because as the incoming editor of the Journal of Management, I have seen a number of manuscripts examining how the characteristics of an organisation’s leader or leaders impact its later success. Current academic research has increasingly demonstrated the real human risk associated with opportunism and arrogance at work.

Hubris has been linked to making more acquisitions and often overpaying for them. Excessive self-interest has led to increased risk-taking and a decreased financial performance. Our leadership models create certain kinds of leaders, and these leaders positively or negatively impact our firms.

My experience with companies suggests that most leadership systems more closely resemble the tournament theory of The Apprentice than the servant leadership exemplified by Undercover Boss. My question is: which leadership model are you using?

Patrick Wright is Thomas C Vandiver Bicentennial chair in the Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina and ranked 14th on HR magazine’s Most Influential International Thinkers list.