Apprentice and leadership styles

Once again the Apprentice last night brilliantly exhibited leadership styles in action – and the dangers of using an inappropriate style for the person involved and the situation. James’ team had to design and pitch a product relating to the fitness and leisure industry. Ben likes to work out, so was full of enthusiasm for the task and believed himself to be more knowledgeable than others (hardly a rare trait in the apprentice!). The power of his conviction and belief in his own ideas derailed broader conversations regarding products and his energy, passion and desire for the task shone through. He was very willing, but did his enthusiasm equate to competence – and if you are his team leader which style should you use to make the most of him? 

James made the common error of mistaking enthusiasm and energy for the task with capability –  which nearly led him to be fired.  James left Ben with his sub-team to create the prototype with the designers, with no rigourous challenge of his ideas and without checking the finalproduct. The groups enthusiasm led them to move away from the instruction they had received of ‘keep it simple’ to add pieces of extra equipment to the initial idea – which led to the product resembling a poor quality electric chair rather than a ‘must buy’ item. 


When the prototype was produced the next day the design group were ecstatic, and Ben had somehow surpassed his own expectations! James looked crestfallen and his face was a complete contrast as he saw the consequences of not being more involved. If James had just considered a simple, basic leadership model such as the skill/will matrix, or any situational leadership model, he would have realised that delegating is not a style to use when the person concerned does not have the capability required. Doing so only sets them up to fail – and the leader is responsible for that. Ben’s energy and ideas needed challenged, given boundaries and blending with other points of view and input. He needed a much closer monitoring and check on what he was doing – as will be the case when somebody is enthused but new to a task – especially if they believe they have more expertise than they actually possess.

We all have a natural preference towards some styles and find others less confortable – witness Debra’s leadership of the competing team in the same episode where her only current options seem to be directive and confrontational. Her team member leading the pitch clearly required some coaching, a style which seemed removed from Debra’s radar.


Effective managers have to be able to mould their style and need some initial self awareness of their own style preferences, and an awareness of what others options exist – and under which circumstances to use these styles. My colleague Paul Taylor, a situational leadership advocate who with me has worked with hundreds of managers on adapting their styles, talks about the styles being ‘easy to understand, much harder to operate in practice’. If managers do not spend time on learning these thoroughly enough and trying them out, when the pressure is on – as it was for James  – the default style will take over, and you take the consequences. Enjoy this displayed most weeks on the Apprentice – but take some lessons yourself – we can all be lured into using the same syles time and again without noticing when we need to operate differently.

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