The Apprentice: Is Sir Alan Sugar acting out the Frankenstein myth?

March 29, 2007

_42740811_gorilla.jpgIn the third series of The Apprentice, Sir Alan Sugar further develops his iconic status as business leader and TV celebrity. But is he acting out the Frankenstein myth, and will he be remembered only for the monster he created?

Update (April 24th 2007)

Dan, and others suggested (in the comments) the possibility of a ‘turned table’ game in which Alan Sugar and others are successively fired. The application of avatars also cropped up in a blog by Paul Carruthers.

4 pm Wednesday March 28th. Message from the pink one. Would I be willing to give a telephone interview about The Apprentice? Do Bears trade in the markets? Yes, I would be willing to give an interview.

This is how it works. The Business Journalist has a list of contacts, and calls around for a few comments that can be knitted together for an article. Mostly the journalist wants to embellish a story-line. Is Alan Sugar a good role model? Is the series just another version of reality TV? Is reality TV unreality TV? The bulk of the final article may well have been assembled – perhaps in an earlier face-to-face interview, or developed from a pre-view of a TV show. The conversation between journo and quote-provider is usually quite pleasant. The discussion may even respect the convention that you are been offered a chance to express your views to a mass audience. Later you will find whether you supplied the sort of quote that the interviewer was looking for.

In pre-blog days, the rest of the discussion would never have been reported. But that was then. Here’s what I would have liked to seen published in a fully reported interview. My reasonably crafted replies here are of course far more coherent than the spluttering efforts I might have made at the time.

Journalist: The Apprentice is starting another series tonight. I’m writing a piece for the Financial Tube and wondered if you had any comment about the programme

Self: Yes. I’m with Digby Jones on this one. He thinks Alan Sugar is a bad role model for a business leader. So do I.

Journalist: Why do you think that?

Self: Alan Sugar is a successful businessman. But the structure of the programme gives a false one-dimensional picture of him acting as an old-fashioned alpha-male ..

[Journalist asks another question but I go on with the earlier answer]

.. He has to act as he does. There are the scenes where people are sycophantic about him, then they get the victim part in the scene where he has do his catch phrase ‘you’re fired’.

Journalist: [possibly asking the question again. The one I hadn’t answered]: What do you mean by an old-fashioned alpha male? Isn’t he typical of successful business leaders:

Self: There are still successful alpha-male leaders. They are increasingly being compared unfavourably for similarities with violent animal group behaviors such as the so-called Mandrill Management. You find them particularly in certain jungle industries. Media – film tycoons, barrow-boys. [And newspaper magnates, but I might not have mentioned that. I have in the past, a few times. If the journalists get it, they don’t publish it. Can’t think why.] But we need to show other models of business leaders. People who can help in tricky negotiations – get our people out of Iran at present, get politicians around a table in Northern Ireland.

Journalist: Have you ever seen the programme?

Self: A few times. But I’ve stopped now. I can watch kids behaving badly in my day job. I don’t want to switch on and watch a phonier version of business dynamics at night.

I respect Sir Alan’s business success. But that’s something else. He’s been sucked into a different game here. There is every chance that he will eventually be remembered by a catch-phrase ‘you’re fired’. I’m not bothered about that.

We ban violence from our screens on the assumption it leads to copycat behaviour. I’m not for taking our TV without Sugar, but I don’t like the way it reinforces the idea that a successful boss has to be a bully. Is this the image of the charismatic leader we aspire to? The leaders we help create and deserve?


Fat and the Nanny State

March 12, 2007

_42331321_sirdigbyjones.jpgA report finds that job interviewers in the UK discriminate against fat applicants. Sir Digby Jones, former chief of the CBI, dismisses the issue as a product of political correctness, and further evidence of the excessive influence of the Nanny State.

First let me confess a liking to Sir Digby Jones, who until recently brought a lot of fun and energy to his high profile role as Director General of the Confederation of British Industry. He was then, and still remains, a person of influence, a thought leader and headline catcher. Much the same can be said about Boris Johnson.

You might anticiapte a ‘but’ on its way. Here it is: But are they ‘prats or prophets’? The phrase originated in an article about Digby Jones as far back as September 2002. It appeared in a piece by George Kerevan in the Scotsman.

The context was a controversial speech made to a Scottish business audience, in which Jones warmed to the themes of the shortcomings of the Scottish Assembly, the anti-Englishness and lack of entrepreneurialism of Scottish culture.

The speech prompted the Scottish agriculture minister, Ross Finnie, to refer to Jones as an English prat. There followed reprimands that threatened Finnie’s political career. Kerevan had no such concerns in retaining the term in the title of his article, and the debate was joined by other journalists.

Sir Digby’s no-nonsense public style does remind me of that of Boris Johnson. As it happens, I learned this week-end that Boris had won one of a series of political awards on a BBC programme, voted for by listeners. The award was for the most gaff-prone politician. Within hours, I was listening to Sir Digby who had been invited by the same channel (BBC five live) to comment on a report suggesting that fat people are discriminated against at job interview. He seemed to be operating in the robust vein favoured by Boris. The themes of political correctness, Nanny State, and the prattishness of political commentators rattled around my head, as I tried to work out whether there were any insights to be gained here on thought leadership.

Thought leadership

The notion of a thought leader is entering the vocabulary of business, via its enthusiastic promotion by management consultants, and educators. Textbooks have identified the concept as a promising one for further study. Even Wikipedia (as of midday today) remains uncomfortable that its entry has adequate substance, so there’s scope to offer a perspective for testing and blogging (which has also begun).

One perspective is that a thought leader is someone whose ideas influence and initiate action in others. It has been particularly but not exclusively applied to the creators of substantial and transformational ideas. The more traditional leader also influences and initiates action in others. The distinction is a fuzzy one, to say the least.

Sir Digby’s analysis: why fat people lose out

Sir Digby argued that job interviews reflect human nature. If fat people lose out, it is because they have presented themselves in an unfavourable light at interview. Those fatties who worked at revealing their positive side at interview would win out. Just like he had done.

And why the report should be rubbished

He went on to say that the report was in his view rubbish. In particular, if efforts were now made to legislate to protect fat people at interview, the process would illustrate the excessive concern for political correctness brought about by The Nanny State.

The thought leaders we deserve?

After the interview I felt ambivalent about the argument which had been delivered with not a little panache. Digby, and for me the retained image of Boris, are thought leaders. But what was bothering me? It was later that day that I realized what it was.

A disgruntled listener was phoning in about the recent dismissal of Tory politician Patrick Mercer (for his black bastard remarks explored elsewhere). I heard a generalised outpouring of disgust about political correctness, all too familiar to listeners of phone-in (and readers of blogs). It seemed a diatribe, serving as a substitute for critique, or for what some people refer to as discourse. Those voices and emails come from the powerless and the dispossessed. They are not the voices of thought leaders, although they could be echoing the words they find emotionally satisfying. These come from a certain kind of thought leader. Digby Jones is one. Boris Johnson is another. In accepting their views, we contribute the sustaining the thought leaders we deserve.

They remain so, for as long as we do not challenge them to provide a deeper examination of how the symbolic notions of political correctness and The Nanny State have become such an automatic common enemy for many within our culture.