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

_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?

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

  1. Tim says:


  2. Dan says:

    In the same way the journalist may be looking for specific answers to reinforce the slant of the article, is it actually Alan Sugar you are disagreeing with, or is it the persona created by the programme? I’m not saying he is a good role model, rather are we actually able to judge from such a contrived setup?

    Also convince the journalist that the issue merits discussion on a separate TV prog, with a bit of luck we can have Conrad Black 🙂

  3. Tudor says:

    Thanks Tim and Dan. Are the TV teams really like MBA teams? The time’s coming when we’ll have utube evidence!

    Dan, you thought my thoughts. I hope I indicated I think the format produces the result. I note there was quite a bit of consensus in the FT article that eventually appeared from various business commentators. I would like to see a group of celebrity bosses with the tables turned, and they get fired one by one, perhaps by the currently fashionable panel plus mass votes. Don’t think Conrad will get permission to take part…

    PPS: I don’t know how to convince the journos I get to talk with. Wish I did.

    Best wishes

  4. Dan says:

    Love your idea for a tv show. It could work anonymously, use a set of criteria to judge success or failure so you don’t actually need the leaders to take part. A group (of MBS students or phone in and vote!?!) could vote out the individual least desirable at each stage – revealing the identity as they are evicted.

    This would ultimately leave the individual who they judged to be the most successful or the best business leader/role model, and because it’s anonymous it won’t be swayed by preconceptions e.g. Maxwell=Pensions etc.

    …and yes my money is still on Conrad!

  5. Tudor says:

    Let’s play around with this idea. Maybe it would be a bit like The Alternative Oscars, top prize to worse performance. Or the weakest link (no explanation needed). Or Celebrity Big Bully (Jean Robinson must be a candidate).

    If we can’t get the leaders, what do we get to vote on? It would be easier to ‘make happen’ no doubt. Can you explain?

  6. Dan says:

    Okay then, my vision is half Money Programme – half The Apprentice, that should ensure some nice places to film, and a few gratuitous shots of expensive cars!

    I thought it may be possible to set some key traits or performance indicators (could be taken from the literature of plucked from thin air!) and assess (say 10) respected and not-so respected business leaders on the basis of these kpi’s. Each episode could cover the reason for that kpi, the impact and usage, a couple of success stories and some failures, people seem to love the ‘when it goes wrong’ moments.

    If the leaders were willing to contribute then they could be interviewed and the viewer could get some genuine insight, and if not, then it could be covered in a docu-biog type style. Then the episode builds to be eviction of the worst performer.

    If the order of the kpi’s was carefully done, then various ‘less-desirable’ leaders could be shown for the one trick masters that they may be, and the group is gradually reduced leading to a higher quality pool each time and ultimately the least worst leader.

    Of course this has loads of bias built in, how are the leaders selected? Are they all commercial business leaders? How are the kpis selected? How is the voting done? etc etc, but it would be interesting.

  7. Tudor says:

    This is getting better all the time. How about U-tube help?

    A technical point. Leadership ‘theories’ suggest traits (what they are); situated actions (what they do); interpretive models (what people’s impressions of them are.
    Hard to arrive at gereal trait-like models; increasing interest in ‘social identity’ and interpretive models.

    Another varient is to set up ‘head to head’ battles . Use observer/expert ratings to eject ….

    Nice one.

  8. Tudor says:

    And … could be a lecture-theatre version, which would actually collect data on perceptions of leaders by ‘wannabe’ leaders such as MBAs.

  9. Dan says:

    Sorry I went awol for a few days, sudden amount of work!

    I don’t know whether to be delighted or horrified by the news story.

    Back to the plan…

    Love the ideas and it would be perfectly possible to use youtube etc to host video clips demonstrating the traits and actions, and opinions/impressions of those allied or impacted (thanks for the technical point – appreciated), and then use an online facility to encourage further discussion.

    As you suggest we could have groups in lecture theatres (and why in just one business school?) to discuss and come to an eviction. If we wanted some competition on the voting side as well as the leader side, then set the schools up in competition or look at the impact of cultural differences on the decisions. I could arrange centres in Singapore and Hong Kong, which would definitely have different views to a more western perspective. It’s turning into ‘University challenge the leader.’

    We really should just try some variant and see what happens. If we worked with the BBC we could probably get access to their content.

  10. Tudor says:

    At some point “ideas” need to be ideas in action .. There is little point in protecting the idea. Will we have the pleasure of seeing someone else putting it into practice. (It is all a questtion of priorities, I think.

    I onced gave up my ‘day job’ to make an idea happen. the result was, I formed a company. But I still ended up as an academic. I didn’t follow through hard enough, I guess.

  11. Tudor says:

    Paul Carruthers introduced me to avatars and their Wii manifestation. There’s still something in this idea. But will it woe me away from Chess, that other internet game where you can play against world-champion avatars?

  12. anon says:

    Well, look who has won? Simon – the nice guy. He played a clean game, no slagging off of contestants! Elegantly channeling Machiavelli in programme one was the closest he got to scheming. Confident, but not afraid to make himself look a prat, possessing good manners, bright and energetic – everyone liked him- even Katie. In the end he was judged more creative than Christina and he won.

    Has their been a shift in the zeitgeist (or do I mean paradigm?) Will Simon’s style signal a change in strategy to aspiring hot shots or their potential employees? If so how will those educating both react?

    Whilst studying economics, Simon managed to find time to perform with the Cambridge Footlights. Cambridge seems to produce a lot of leaders so might business schools might want to encourage theatrical and comedy skills to compliment the hard analysis and teamwork? It might make those PowerPoint presentations a bit more interesting, but the collaboration involved in putting together a show has valuable team work experience in its own right. Baden Powell knew all about this when he wrote theatrical skills into the boy scouts handbook.

    What also might be worth considering are elocution and etiquette studies so that communication and networking skills in different social systems can be achieved without having to go to either ‘the university of life’ or a public school. In his friendship with Tre, Simon demonstrated he has the ‘common touch’ – sometimes a tough skill to master for those educated in prestigious institutions (witness Rory V Tre, Paul V Tre, Katie V Tre) It can be excruciating when posh boy acts street. Simon pulled it off. It is equally as embarrassing seeing street acting posh? (In the UK is football culture the no mans land for this topsy turvy display? )

    Sir Alan has changed his business strategy and there also appears to be a shift in self perception. No more products like the ‘e mailer’ phone (the only time you will see one is on The Apprentice). No more electronic slimming aids (this is what the poor guy who won the first series had to try and flog). Sir Alan now wants to be associated with iconic architecture. Alan would like to be funny, likable, posh and with a whiff of the theatre. He now wants to be a bit like Simon.

    It is nice that Sir Alan has let go of his myth. The chip on his shoulder has disappeared. There seems to be real mutual love between master and apprentice. They looked quite cute talking to Adrian Chiles in the post game analysis.

  13. Tudor says:

    Brilliant. But where is that Nemesis of tyrannical leaders Jeff Schubert when this post needs him? URL :
    Somewhere between Melbourne and Moscow, the last I heard from him.
    In his absence, I suggest that far from A.S. letting go of his myth, his myth has continued to expand into the space which would otherwise be occupied by the businessman who built up Armstrad. And the demands on showbiz Al are beginning to show.

    The programme continues to win great viewing figures. But where is it heading? It looks to me that the parallel with Celebrity Big Brother is too accurate to be ignored. More drama, more ‘creativity’, more myth-making. Who wants to bet on more that two more series? Sir Alan insists he will continue as long as he remains interested. (Not an answer that would cut much ice, if provided by a wannabe Apprentice). At least he may be able to get out before the programme runs out of steam, and avoid the appropriate tragic end of the deposed leader. (Yes, I did mention Nemesis, didn’t I)

    Don’t know if this means much. I know a genuinely likeable and successful self-made business chief. He has had several attempts to hire an ‘apprentice’. Simon sounds a bit like those selections. Two (or maybe it’s three) tries. Each has failed to fill the gap he had been selected to fill.

  14. Tudor, you have put me on the spot! Yes, I am in Russia; but no, I have never seen The Apprentice. But I may ask: is Simon really a “nice guy” or a tyrant in disguise. Consider the following extracts from my book:

    Stalin, like all dictatorial CEOs, lived in a world of pretence, in which he was continually lying and acting the part – and doing it very well. Khrushchev recalled meeting Stalin after a military set-back he had been involved in: “At first Stalin didn’t give any sign of whether he was furious with me or sympathetic toward me. He was a good actor. His face was a mask of inscrutability.”

    Djilas, who closely observed Stalin at the dinner table after the end of the war, wrote that his “pretence was so spontaneous that it seemed he himself became convinced of the truth and sincerity of what he was saying. He very easily adapted himself to every turn in the discussion of any new topic, and even to every new personality.” Indeed, at times it all becomes a bit of game for the dictatorial CEO. Sergo Beria wrote that Stalin “took a wicked pleasure in striking blows, in trampling on people, in destroying whatever resisted him. … I believe that he was perfectly aware of his wickedness – otherwise he would not have made an art of dissimulation and would not have striven systematically to appear different from what he was. Only a villain conscious of his villainy can pretend with such skill. And Stalin was a born actor.”

    Dr Li wrote that Mao “used ill health as a political ploy” and “was not above feigning ill health”. One day in 1956 Mao confided how he often got his way: “Getting upset is just one of my weapons. When they force me to do something I don’t want to do, I get upset. Then I don’t have to do it.” Indeed, dictatorial CEOs can play almost any part called for. Dr Li recalled Chairman Mao attending the funeral of revolutionary colleague, Chen Yi, in 1972:

    “Several other leaders had arrived – and from over my shoulder I heard someone exclaim that the Chairman was crying. Chen Yi’s comrades burst into sobs, and wails soon filled the room. But the Chairman was not crying. He was putting on a good show, blinking his eyes and making an effort to wail. His acting skills were still finely honed.”

    Pretending to consult with lieutenants is part and parcel of being a dictatorial CEO. It helps to keep the lieutenants in line by giving them the feeling that they are needed and are influencing important events. In reality, it’s a game. Speer wrote that although Hitler “seldom began a discussion without a preconceived opinion”, he “always attempted to persuade”. He would then often give his orders as “an opinion only”.

    Napoleon’s concept of consulting with his lieutenants often blatantly exposed itself as pure pretence. So much so, that by 1809, members of the Napoleon’s Council of State holding dissenting opinions now offered them cautiously. Napoleon would say: “Read the draft proposal aloud.” He would then give his view on the decision that should be made, before concluding: “Does someone wish to speak about the wording?” When Napoleon abandoned the remnants of his army to return to Paris in 1812, his marshals and other generals were given only three hours notice of this, and once again, the pretence of consultation was evident. Caulaincourt wrote:

    “They constituted a sort of council to which the Emperor announced his determination to go to Paris. His manner was that of someone submitting a project for their opinion on it; and they were unanimous in urging him to go.”

    What else were they to say? Napoleon was already packed!

    Khrushchev recalled that as he was building his power in the early 1930s, “Stalin never chaired the Politburo sessions himself. He always left that job to Molotov”. This allowed Stalin to pretend that he was just one member of a decision making group. It had the added bonus of allowing him to avoid leading the discussion and to suss out what others were thinking, while revealing little of his own thoughts. Khrushchev was initially taken in: “I was spellbound by the patience and sympathy for others that he showed at Politburo meetings in the middle thirties.”

    Following the successful defence of Moscow in 1941, a confident Stalin insisted on a massive offensive over the objections of Marshal Zhukov. General Shaposhnikov later said to Zhukov: “You argued in vain. These issues had been decided beforehand.” And Stalin’s pretence continued in the post-war period: “He never gave direct orders,” wrote one of his lieutenants, “so you had to make your own conclusions”. He would just say: “Do as you wish.” This was like Hitler’s “an opinion only” – pure pretence!

    In 1951 Stalin asked Laventri Beria to give the address on the eve of the thiry-fourth anniversary of the October Revolution, saying “write what you like. You needn’t send me your text in advance.” But it was pretence, and Stalin began to worry that Laventri would call his bluff by taking him at his word. Lavrenti’s son, Sergo, wrote that “Stalin waited as long as he could, then two days before the event, unable to hold back any longer, he asked Poskrebyshev to obtain the text from my father’s secretary. … Naturally, Stalin telephoned my father: ‘Why have you sent me your speech? I’m trying to rest and here you are, bothering me with these details.’”

    The dictatorial CEO is very good at pretending to be concerned for the welfare of his lieutenants. He is a make-out friend. Dr Li wrote how, in 1960, Mao told some of his staff that they were being dismissed: they were, he said, being sent to participate in the Great Leap Forward so that they could report back to him.

    “Mao was a marvellous actor. He was getting rid of key members of his staff, consigning then to hardship and suffering, but even as he fired them, he still wanted their loyalty. So he pretended that they were friends and that he was taking this step against his will, because he needed their help.”

    In early 1967, when Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s heir apparent, was already being set up for the chop, Mao invited him to visit. He asked about Liu’s family and reminisced about old times. When Liu was leaving, Mao said: “Study well. Take good care of yourself.” Days later Liu was isolated from the Chinese leadership, and was soon to die in prison.

    Khrushchev later wrote about Stalin’s visitors sometimes quickly finding themselves in prison: “I knew of many cases when Stalin would reassure people by letting them leave his office with good news, and then had them picked up and taken somewhere other than the place they expected.” Sergo Beria recalled that Stalin visited his mother, who admired him, not long before his death: “You can’t know how tired I am, how much I am fed up with these people who aren’t interested in anything. Sometimes I ask myself why I am wearing myself out for them. I’m exhausted. I see Lavrenti eating pimento and I envy him. I can’t eat it. I’ve something wrong with my gums. He enjoys walnut sauce, but I can’t sleep at night if I eat it. I can’t even stretch myself in the normal way. I have to sleep like a gundog.” Beria continued: “My mother pitied him. … These confidences were imparted while he was preparing to arrest my mother and my father. I believe, all the same, that he was sincere at that moment, as otherwise he would not have mentioned his private miseries.” Sincere at that moment!

  15. Tudor says:

    I have this problem. A few minutes of The Apprentice makes me exercise my right to switch off, turn off, get a drink, anything rather than hang in there. Celebrity Big Brother has a similar effect on me. So my lack of professional grit precludes me from close content analysis. It’s like trying to assess a play only from the comments of critics and friends. Their comments, and my brief ‘sampling’ reinforces my general suspicion that the show only ‘works’ if you take a marketing view. We are getting the leaders we are fascinated by.

    Two good friends whose judgement I respect left an evening meeting this Wednesday to catch the next episode. My view is far from widely shared.

    Anyway (and wha’ever), I’m in the position of the guy with binoculars complaining that his neighbours are indulging in something he disapproves of, but he can’t risk being corrupted by looking long enough to get a full picture of what they are up to ..

  16. anon says:

    “The programme continues to win great viewing figures. But where is it heading?”

    I was in the supermarket picking up my copy of the weekend Guardian. The Apprentice Magazine!! Sitting next to Heat and Zoo, FHM, Super Fast Car and Hello!

    Here is what happens (maybe):

    Post Blair, the aspirations of the population, previously in thrall to acting and football based celebrity shifts into entrepreneurship guided my the gentle hand of the BBC and grass roots car boot and eBay culture. In the early Brown years, the slogan ‘cool to get serious’ permeates the collective consciousness. Features in the Apprentice Magazine cross pollinate the BBC TVs business assets: The Business Lunch, Dragons Den, The Apprentice, The Money Programme. Then Adam Heart Davis does a series entitled Great Apprenticeships in History.

    The Apprentice Magazine also points out that BBC radio is also rich in business content and that is is available online; The familiar voice of Evan Davies on The Bottom Line gives ‘Insight into business from the people at the top’. In Business, another programme, this week deals with the ‘The idea is that your keyboard and your mouse and an Internet connection are all you need to turn on the services you need like tap water. Much of the software is free or cheap.’ – Useful information for the mushrooming internet savvy, social networking, Web 2.0 culturally aware entrepreneur.

    Next, The Apprentice Magazine hooks up with the Open University. Apprentice star and celebrity rough diamond Tre appears on an Open University program investigating the history of non confrontational leadership styles. Two versions of the prgramme are recorded; Tre demonstrates his language skills and the programme is ready for BBC worldwide, or at least the Indian market. The magazine is launched in Hindi following a version of The Apprentice starting the Hinduja Brothers instead of Sir Alan. The World Service, the political wing of the BBC, captivates the world disparate to learn English, remixes the content producing stories of the meritocracy though entrepreneurship, parables of fair trade and tolerance but with warnings about ethics and the environment.

    Micheal Hesletine, whose Haymarket Media group publishes a magazine called World Business in association with INSEAD complains that it is all unfair.

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