authentic leadership


So here we are at The Final. Even if I’m not entirely about the numbers (as my MBTI and other psychometric experiences confirmed), I can calculate on the spot pretty well for someone whose background and strengths are mostly on the creative side of the fence. So if time really is money, I  reckon this series has cost me about a grand at my going rate. Ok, it’s had its moments, but any sense of a meaningful return has been a little difficult to identify.

Nor am I entirely proud that I’ve reviewed the episodes as if I’ve been watching televised pantomime, but that is what much of the series has felt like: the reviews are at least honest. And few reviewers – except one or two written by people taking themselves rather too seriously (or trying too hard to sell their own services) – have treated the programme with much more respect. There has been wisdom on offer, but all too often it’s been Norman Wisdom rather than Business Wisdom. No disrespect to Nick Hewer, Karren Brady or Lord Sugar himself: I’m sure your intentions are entirely honourable and your hearts are in the right places. But a lot of the audience are laughing up their sleeves rather than taking notes. There also seems to be a consensus that this hasn’t been a bumper series: the candidates have neither shone with brilliance nor dazzled with ineptitude, and the format feels tired. (If you can’t be clever, be likeable and all that …)

Indeed, the format is now an ugly cut and shunt job. The title never really belonged: whatever the programme has ever been, a structured learning programme with constant mentoring isn’t it. The task format worked while it was about picking an employee, but has not been amended now that it’s about identifying a partner to invest in. As The Telegraph pointed out, this year and last year’s eventual winners were both the candidate in the final who had been on the losing team the most often. (Although this criticism also overlooks the factor that annoys me: the worst or weakest performance can easily be on the winning team, while someone else must be fired.) The selection process may introduce a ‘reality tv’ level of suspense into the series, but as a model of business selection criteria it needs a stern word in its ear. (Claude, do you have a moment?) As models for assessment centres go, It’s A Knockout is an unusual choice.

Interestingly, the ‘The Final Five’ and the ‘Why I Fired Them’ programmes gave the viewer rather more beyond slapstick and buffoonery than the actual episodes: they had moments of a sober reflective quality that reviewed business strengths and personal qualities in ways that the tasks themselves have not. And as Lord Sugar reminded us in them, the process is also about the person: as well as an investor, Lord Sugar will be a business partner with the eventual winner. Good luck with that, as they say. And are you sure you didn’t want that dog?

Anyway, here we all are at the Institute of Directors, and each finalist gets a couple of sentences to outline their business plan. Nick offers a one-click facility for any recipe on the internet so we can buy the ingredients in one fell swoop. Tom is punting a hedge fund based around investments in fine wines. Jade is offering a call centre the size of Wales. Or perhaps Nepal. And Ricky is proposing an ethical recruitment service aimed at the scientific industries.

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I’m not sure about this additional episode. In one way, it’s the Personal Statement section of the application form, where we get to understand their individual drivers and see their pitch in terms of strengths. It also provides Karren and Nick – who, we should attempt to remember, are the two people who have actually witnessed and observed the participants over the long string of tasks they’ve completed. (Lord Sugar’s acquaintance with them is limited to task-setting cameos, a quick game of whiff-whaff one afternoon and the Boardroom session, which focus mostly on the losers.)

In televisual terms – and for televisual reasons – it’s also the sob story/background bit. Is this supplementary information that you’d normally welcome in a recruitment process, or sentimental special pleading masquerading as light entertainment? This is the kind of material that’s usually filler in X Factor, surely? If this was Big Brother, a cartoon Geordie would announce at this point that “You decide”.

But we don’t. Lord Alan, Nick and Karren decide, and we don’t know if they even care that so and so loves his Mum or comes from good stock. After all, so do – in their different ways – Edward VIII and bowls of dripping. I’m not sure I’d want to invest in either. What really drives them? It’s too easy and tempting to say “A cab, with luck”, but here is a summary of the runners and riders for the semi-final.

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Last week’s episode engineered a cliff hanger, which saw Stephen escape Lord Sugar’s laser-guided firing finger by millimetres. This week, he’s parlayed his way into being PM whatever the task, and winning. Assessed on past performance, he’s left himself no option but to polish his petard until it’s as blindingly shiny as his suits and pray that he’s not hoisted aloft on it like a white flag. If there’s any justice, he’ll address a few other points too: dealing with his five o’clock shadow (fine at 5pm, but all day?), curb his patronising approach to the others (and especially the female others – let’s hope Karren is taking notes), and start taking responsibility rather than directing to others the moment anything as much as threatens to turn nipples-skyward. Last week, he had what we can assume was his first real close shave, and was only spared a free cab home by the thickness of his faux mohair waistcoat.

This week, regardless of the task, it’s his own brand that sorely needs a 24-hour makeover and a drastic repositioning. So it’s very tense on my sofa this week. Not only I am missing Lewis for this, I now realise I’m also missing the final series of A Town Called Eureka. Dramatic tension, complex problems to unravel, radical innovation, rendering of justice – and all of it on other channels.

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OK, I missed Episode 1. No, I didn’t nod off: I was Down Under, 12 hours out of sync, and eating breakfast in a campervan. Whether muesli, banana and sunshine were better for me than another episode of this must remain a debate to be had elsewhere, but I didn’t have a sense of missing it. Having concluded, watching the last series, that the programme struggles to really be either a business lesson or an entertainment (we’ll return to that in a moment), watching Episode 2 in the throes of jetlag wasn’t a great idea. While the running metaphor of review the last series was Steve, sat on a sofa in Rotherham, the show’s ‘magic’ didn’t rub off on Dave, sat on a sofa in Milton Keynes. I drifted, more in the sense of Mae West’s oft-quoted remark than in the sense of any kind of reverie. And I wasn’t Snow White before I started, even without the capital letters.

It was the week of The Invention Task. “Aren’t they all?”, I mused woozily, in as much as every episode seems essentially to turn on the alchemic process of turning old rope into fivers by the magical application of egotism, backstabbing and a carefully edited sense of urgency. I’m sure the programme should be instilling some kind of appreciation of the virtues of the ideal businessperson, but the commentary I read over the weekend that most reminded me of the programme was actually an interview with Marianne Faithfull in The Guardian, where her answer to the splendid question “Which of the sins do you feel you have explored most fully?” was as follows:

I’ve had a go at most, but in this piece Brecht turns them all upside down, so that lust becomes love. Pride becomes pride in your work. Envy is actually the hardest sin to make positive.”

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Being told something is generally the consequence of someone else’s desire to bring it to your attention – that there’s a deadline looming that you need to meet, that you need to be aware that a particular activity is forbidden wherever you are, or that your choice of outfit might not be showing you in your best light. Sometimes the information is useful, sometimes it’s inadvertently amusing (I always enjoyed a friend’s office door that had a stern ‘No Tapdancing’ sign on it, in case anyone was about to break into the best Fred and Ginger routine); sometimes, however, it can have effects that we can only assume weren’t intended.

Mark Gould, writing at his Enlightened Tradition blog, provides a personal example to illustrate this point – and an explanation as to why a reminder might not have the intended effect:

I recall reading many years ago about a study which suggested that waiting staff in restaurants tended to break more crockery when they were reminded to take care than when there was no such reminder. As I once washed dishes and made coffee in a wine bar, this made sense to me. There is a lack of trust implicit in a reminder, which might make one doubt one’s abilities and therefore lead to more breakages. An alternative explanation might be that the reminder causes people to concentrate on the wrong thing — a broken plate, rather than a plate conveyed safely to its destination.”

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Books that take a big picture theme and attempt to explain it clearly, preferably with a sprinkling of anecdotes, are in vogue. Alain de Botton recently brought us Religion for Atheists, while Sunstein and Thaler brought us Nudge, which proposed a ‘third way’ (while trying not to call it that) between paternalism and libertarianism. Amusing us with tales of insects painted onto urinals to encourage a sense of direction, they also took aim – in a more metaphorical sense – at behavioural economics, explaining how a cheese and wine party hosted by ‘Econs’ might turn out. (Fabulously for those who look primarily for efficiency as the sign of a good party, it would appear.)

Masters of Management, a fairly updated version of the earlier The Witch Doctors (an absolute classic, available from Amazon for £0.01 at time of writing, and still eminently readable), shares this ever-so-slightly-down-the-bridge-of-one’s-nose view of the labouring millions, as one might expect from a writer schooled by The Economist. There are one or two things that the reader has to take for granted -not least that this is a by-product of The Economist, and that free market theories will be politely and eruditely defended while egalitarian tendencies can expect criticism. But a few sacred cows are declared fair game along the way, and if not exactly slaughtered then at the least given quite a public carpeting. And the wider world also makes a welcome intrusion. Though it’s not the kind of book to use such a flippant example, were it to view, say, Cabaret through economists’ eyes, it wouldn’t stop at commenting on the skilful deployment of a low-cost pool of creative labour (the turns), the ironic brand-positioning (the band), and the approach to a potentially hostile demographic (selling drinks and ‘services’ to the SS). It would also point out that the rise of fascism and the advent of war was going to have a disastrous impact on more than just the bar’s P&L account.

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The secret of comedy is timing, they say. Within 60 seconds of each other, I received two emails that seemed to be trying to prove the point:

  • An email from a colleague about a Roffley Institute report showing that board level managers think they are rather more respected that those below them would confirm
  • A email from dictionary.com, giving the definition of the word ‘mammonism’ (full definition online here).

Among the citations and references for the latter, I spotted an academic study of Dickens. Poking verbal sticks into ‘fat cats’ has a long and venerable history, of course, but it’s subject like so many things to the vagaries of fashion. Dickens’ bicentenary this year will no doubt bring a fresh tidal wave of retrospection to cultural shores already awash with Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey and the like. (Fitfully switching between viewing and dozing in an armchair on Christmas Day last year, the only thing that didn’t feature Regency bonnets a-go-go seemed to be the evening news.) The list of associated words in the definition almost set my pun-loving mind into action (“I thought mammonite was a kind of fossil until I discovered …”) before the thought that nostalgic wallowing can be damaging as well as amusing. The past is another country, but tourism is a better option than emigration.

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