Battle of Ideas: Picking on the Apprentice

October 19, 2008

Alan Sugar acts out the leadership myth

Alan Sugar acts out the leadership myth


Creative leaders are idea warriors. Which is why many will be found engaging in the debate on bullying at work organized by The Institute of Ideas

The Fourth annual Battle of Ideas will involve over 1500 participants including strands on bullying at work, biomedicine, the family and (inevitably for election week).

The bullying at work session has marketed itself as Picking on the Apprentice. Leaderswedeserve has had a few points to make in the past on the television program. Like ourselves, The Institute of Ideas is more interested in hitch-hiking on the over-publicized programme to get at a far wider wider range of issues.

The bullying event will examine the recent case when a Marks & Spencer employee was fired for whistle blowing. And the example of Jason Toal, a black fireman bullied by colleagues who hurled racist taunts at him and allegedly soaked him with water and binned his paper work.

Other sessions will explore whether management consultancy and the professionals are in need of a stronger moral compass in the interests of the community, and (if that appeal is not enough) for their own post-credit crunch survival.

Political correctness running sane

Many people have developed a kneejerk reaction to describe their feekings of frustration and anger under the catch-all phrase political correctness gone mad. It might be interesting to trace the origins of this.

I have no doubt that themes within the Battle of Ideas will attract the inevitable media take of political correctness running mad . Which is OK. It is a comfort to think that debate offers a chance to develop more balanced views, and more importantly to act accordingly. On balance I’d say that is political correctness operating in a socially healthy way.

Acknowledgement: The Institute of ideas for the press release which prompted this post


Leaders We Deserve: Andrea Williams

May 21, 2008

If leadership is the process of influencing others to achieve your goal then Andrea Williams is one the clearest examples I have come across of that species. In that respect she would be a candidate for running many a commercial organization

This week, political attention in Britain brought into focus issues of the most contested and deeply held kind for many people. Parliament debated the Human Fertilization and Embryology (HFE) Bill.

The Government chose to make it a conscience vote. This was to lead to some differences in how the processes of influence played out. The process of lobbying by interest groups did not disappear, but rather took on a different guise.

Mentioned in Dispatches

The role of one particular lobbyist was captured in a riveting TV documentary by David Modell in the Despatches series.

Modell has won praise and prizes for his work through which he reveals the operations of various groups whose behaviours tend to be labelled as extremist and fundamentalist. Neo-nazis, Animal Rights Activists, Football Hooligans, and now Fundamental Christians. His skill is to win from group members acceptance for his presence as a non-judgmental recorder. While this is an over-simplified view, his filming has a non-judgmental quality, leaving the viewer space to a better understanding of individual behaviours regardless of whether the beliefs and practices are found acceptable.

In this programme one personality dominated by her sheer energy and capacity to make a difference to situations in which she engaged. The central character was Andrea Williams, who seems to be increasingly devoting her efforts to causes within religious networks. Among her roles is that of Policy Director of The Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship.

The Lawyer turned Activist

In an interview for The Church Times, she explains how her upbringing had led to her activism. She also explained how her husband’s job as a senior executive of a telecommunications company gives her the opportunity to devote her time to her religious beliefs

In the programme, we follow Ms Williams in a series of scenes in which she repeatedly displayed a capacity to take control of events by her words and actions. Let her loose in many corporate battlegrounds, and she would quickly emerge on top. Or, perhaps more subtly, as the person influencing the top cat.

Maybe this will happen. If not, it is because Andrea Williams has signed up to a different cause. Her motivations are primarily non-secular.

Modell, writing in The Independent describes one recent example of her influencing skills at work on the Conservative Peer, Norman Tebbit:

Lord Tebbit meets us in Central Lobby and takes us to a meeting room. He and Ms Williams perch across the corner of a huge oak table. Ms Williams is persuading him of the importance of laying an amendment to the Bill. “You can get a slot on the Today programme,” she says. “Because you can say, ‘I’m tabling an amendment to reduce the upper limit on abortion’.”

Ms Williams has already written the amendments she wants incorporated into the legislation. Lord Tebbit is asked if he’d be willing to lay one, and he agrees to consider it. Ms Williams doesn’t hesitate in closing the deal. Without missing a beat, she reaches into her bag and pulls out an A4 sheet. The document is passed to Lord Tebbit and he takes it away with him. It seems too easy.

Other examples of the leader captured in action also caught my eye. There is confirmation of the rapid rapport, turning to friendship and political alliance, between herself and Conservative MP Nadine Dorries.

Charisma in action, I muttered to myself.

Indeed, Ms Dorries sponsored an amendment to the HFE bill debated in Parliament (May 19th -20th, 2008), and spoke in the debate in tones that seemed to echo those of her close friend Andrea Williams.

In yet another episode in the film, Ms Williams arrived at a demonstration where events were somewhat complicated by a general lack of focus, exemplified by a well-intentioned supporter who was capturing media attention with a ranting performance. Andrea swiftly marshaled the more media-attractive supporters into line, and made a good stab at shifting the ranting one off-stage.

Modell had also been energetic advancing his own cause. Writing in The Telegraph timed to plug the programme, he noted

I met [Andrea Williams] on a demonstration against the Sexual Orientation Rights [gay rights] legislation outside Parliament at the beginning of last year. The protest had been organized by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) – or, more specifically, by Andrea Williams, its public policy director.

Ms Williams believes any law that goes against her strict biblical beliefs must be fought. Her latest target is the Human Fertilization and Embryology (HFE) Bill … Ms Williams tells me why she is campaigning against it. “I believe there’s a spiritual battle going on,” she explains. “These laws reject God, and any rejection of God is the work of the enemy, Satan.”

In yet another cameo within the programme, we heard the evocative use of statistics which characterizes the charismatic leader. (Yes, I encourage my students to bring statistics to life, but I think I’ll not use this particular example). The number of abortions in this country, she told a rapt audience of fundamentalist Christians, has now reached a scale comparable with that of the holocaust. Her mission is to stop another holocaust.

Leadership Watch

I have no hesitation in offering the case for study towards understanding the nature of exceptional leadership behaviours. The performances of the wannabe apprentices in the Alan Sugar series rarely demonstrate the raw influencing skills witnessed here.

The Problems with Charisma

One of the problems with charisma is one which has troubled earlier researchers into leadership. The very elements that had been attributed to transformational leaders turned out to be too similar to the characteristics found in leaders such as Hitler.

The evaluation of any set of leadership behaviours forces an examination of the leader’s beliefs. Here we have a leader who is driven by a deep sense of mission, and of evils to be tackled. In efforts to achieve the ends she so fervently seeks, she resorts to a form of rhetoric that often attracts descriptions such as spell-binding or magical. It appeals to visceral values and fears.

The style worked for President Kennedy and Martin Luther King many years ago. It seems to be working for Barack Obama at the moment. But in its mechanisms of influence, it can not be disconnected from the performances of an Andrea Williams. Nor unfortunately can it be distanced from the style of leaders who have also been labelled with various clinical terms from narcissism to megalomania.


The Reinvention of Apprenticeship: Alan Sugar’s Variation

April 25, 2008


Apprenticeship has ancient origins, and has reinvented itself as time goes by. Alan Sugar’s celebrity version for the BBC is a recent modification. Its viability as a leadership development approach is examined

I have expressed reservations about The Apprentice in earlier posts. It seems unlikely that many more series will be commissioned.
Nevertheless, it has had enough social impact to warrant some critical attention not as entertainment, but as a possible template for leadership development.

I decided to dig a little deeper into the history of apprenticeship, and compare its dynamics with other approaches for identifying and developing potential leaders.

A short history of the apprenticeship model

Historical studies sometimes only hint at the justified reputation that apprenticeship was often exploitative and one of the targets of social revolutionaries.

Since time immemorial, people have been transferring skills from one generation to another in some form of apprenticeship. Four thousand years ago, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi provided that artisans teach their crafts to youth. The records of Egypt, Greece, and Rome from earliest times reveal that skills were still being passed on in this fashion. When youth in olden days achieved the status of craft workers, they became important members of society. Their prestige in England [sic] centuries ago is reflected in a dialog from the Red Book of Hergest, a 14th-century Welsh [sic] Bardic manuscript:

“Open the door! “I will not open it. “Wherefore not? “The knife is in the meat, and the drink is in the horn, and there is revelry in Arthur’s Hall; and none may enter therein but the son of a King of a privileged country, or a craftsman bringing his craft.”

An excellent historical review from the 1920s traces the origins in England to the 11th –century. It cites Ricart’s Kalendar (I like that) from the 14th century thus:

It is said that any man having an apprentice may sell or devise his said apprentice in the same manner as his chattel

The article further notes that

Subsequent legal cases tested the principle which eventually became accepted as the right more precisely to dispose of the office or apprenticeship not the apprentice as a chattel.

Phew. That’s a relief.

Sitting with Nellie

Wasn’t that a bit like the 20th century approach fondly remembered as Sitting with Nellie?

Turns out the origins of the term still defeat blog surfers. I remember it in the context of apprentice training in Northern engineering and textiles organizations. Steve Holden reports that the widely-used phrase can also be found in the USA, where he links the term to the apprenticeship model, but also suggests its value for 21st Century work requirements the open-source world.

Another insightful summary comes from the Institute of Physics

Organisational knowledge creation takes place when knowledge acquisition is managed to form a continuous cycle. This happens particularly effectively in self-organised teams, where members share tacit knowledge and talking brings it to the surface. They exchange thoughts and experiment with new methods and ideas; they initiate problem-solving routines and manage and repair the social context within which they work. Concepts are refined and redefined and then shared with other staff, developing and emerging in more concrete, explicit form through an iterative process of trial and error.
Knowledge can then be transmitted by a process of internalising, of learning-by-doing so that tacit knowledge spreads within the company. The distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge helps to explain why, up to a point, “sitting by Nellie” (now an unfashionable concept) can work where “translating learning to the workplace” from training often does not.

The Apprenticeship Model Revisited

The Apprenticeship model is not without merit. We might agree with the Knowledge Management argument that it is a version of Sitting with Nellie which works ‘where “translating learning to the workplace” from training often does not’.

The self-referential frenzy whipped up by the BBC during The Apprentice run involves increasing number of interviews with ‘losers’ and even panels voting on ‘Was Sir Alan right to fire ….?’ thus keeping the story going from day to day.

These exercises are a bit too voyeuristic for me, and arre anyway open to a more detailed cultural analysis than I have time to make. (Anyone out there interested?).

My impression is of a number of captivated cult-members who make sense of a deeply meaningful experience in terms of a close encounter with a charismatic cult leader.

The robust feedback meted out by the all-powerful Sir Alan is accommodated by his devoted acolytes. If you belief in the virtues of a swift sharp shock as a trigger to learning, the process arguably ‘works’, and a reflective and introspective process of self-learning occurs. It appears to be, at least in the short-term, a developmental experience.

We might reasonably consider if there are longer-term impacts of such experiences on the self-image and social identity of participants. Cary Cooper carried out one of numerous subsequent studies of the impact of such social shock doctrines in his PhD, many years ago. I can’t remember the detailed results, but in general Cooper found, as have workers since, that the impact of developmental leadership programmes on individuals is difficult to assess for longer-term consequences (See Rickards & Clark, 2005).

It’s only a game, isn’t it?

Yes, The Apprentice is obviously entertainment, and hardly intended to offer a leadership role model. However, if the antics of Sir Alan make him the best known among Britain’s business leaders, and if he also is involved in a business development institution, there is at least justification in examining the consequences for public perceptions of business.

Beyond the Apprenticeship Model

But what other models of leadership development offer something aspired to as conversion of tacit knowledge into personal development? Labels abound: Action Learning; Group Relations Training; 360 degree feedback; Communities of learning; Experiential learning; Mentorship; Appreciative Enquiry; The Manchester Method.

What they share is a pedagogically justifiable rationale. Providing individuals with some direct feedback is part of it. (Remember the gentle irony of Bob Newhart’s driving instructor, a wondrous take on the teacher who ducks out of providing honest advice). No one can accuse Sir Alan of failing to give direct feedback.

Sir Alan’s shock-treatment may yet be treated as a wake-up call to those advocating alternative approaches … So let me be direct. Sir Alan, it’s become too tacky, you’ve been captured by the process of becoming a celebrity. I can’t fire you, and there may still be time to get out of the pantomime before someone else does. Walk out of the house. Or am I mixing up my celebrity reality metaphors?

Notes:

In preparing the post I was reminded of the work of Graeme Salaman.
and studies by his Open University colleague John Story for concerns about unreflective exercise of organizational power