Moving from an Apprentice to a Leader

I was at a Charity Q & A with Lord Sugar last week and I asked him about leadership. “You either got it, or you ain’t.” was the gist of his position.

The Apprentice starts this week and I wanted to reflect for a moment on how one moves from a candidate with potential into a leader.

Some people I have worked with have been true leaders, but others in managerial positions have been terrible, and I wanted to circulate my own thoughts on what makes great leaders, but in brief I believe that natural leadership can be enhanced by the practical application of learned leadership tools, a positive environment and good team selection.


Effective Leadership

Effectiveness is a constant theme throughout Peter Drucker’s work. In 2004 he noted,

“I was the first one to talk about leadership 50 years ago, but there is too much talk, too much emphasis on it today and not enough on effectiveness… Charismatic leadership by itself certainly is greatly overstated. Look, one of the most effective American presidents of the last 100 years was Harry Truman. He didn’t have an ounce of charisma. Truman was as bland as a dead mackerel. Everybody who worked for him worshiped him because he was absolutely trustworthy.

Drucker’s assessment is that each of us makes decisions based on a learned framework. What differentiates the effectiveness of that leader is the trust that others have in the decision-maker in that their learned framework and cognitive assessment offers a higher level of relevance.

“One does not start with facts. One starts with opinions. These are, of course, nothing but untested hypotheses and, as such, worthless unless tested against reality. To determine what is a fact requires first a decision of the criteria of relevance, especially on the appropriate measurement. This is the hinge of the effective decision.”

Lord Sugar’s leadership all about effectiveness in a competitive environment – that is getting things done in a tough business situation. It is success in this that has elevated him to wealth and public consciousness, but does it make him a true leader?

The first aspects of leadership management is to identify who or what the individual can and cannot lead and where our skills lie. Could Lord Sugar manage in the NHS, could Rupert Murdoch manage the Guardian, could Brian Clough manage Leeds or Alex Ferguson manage Manchester City?

It is questionable that this focused type of leadership can be translated into a different environment with the same success and Lord Sugar’s relative failure as a Minister is evidence of this. Likewise, one would imagine that all of today’s political leaders would struggle to effectively manage within a competitive business environment, not least the Business Secretary!

Developing the Common Purpose

When there is perfect alignment between the leader and those in the team, the outcome of this behaviour, as defined by Joel Kurtzman (2010), is common purpose.

“What is common purpose?  It is that rare, almost palpable experience that happens when a leader coalesces a group, team, or community into a creative, dynamic, brave and nearly invincible we.”                                                                                            

Kurtzman believes that individuals want to work with people that they learn from and whose purpose they share. This is the key lesson from the Apprentice- where there is a common purpose galvanised around the leader that inspires confidence, the team outperforms.

He further notes that in order to achieve common purpose, a variety of defined leadership roles are required. This aligns with my experience in the workplace; a level of education (and increasingly erudition) is necessary to gain the broad skill-set to lead. Although a particular leader may be more natural with one particular management approach, effective leadership management requires advanced natural ability seen in only but a handful of individuals, but more realistically, training in all areas.

Importance must be placed on the ability to use leadership management to foster inclusivity. Team selection (and encouraging the team’s peers to buy into the team) is part of generating a common purpose organisation and whilst some (and I guess Lord Sugar) may mock the team-building collectivist component of modern management, there is no substitute for shared experiences.

You’re Hired- What’s Next?

So with the new series of the Apprentice due to hit the screens, I wonder if Lord Sugar is looking for an apprentice with a backstory and impressive selling techniques, a visionary inventor with a thousand good ideas, a big personality that flirts with the TV to glory, or as I would hope for, an effective manager, who repeatedly leads from the front or the side, inspiring their team to outstanding results and common purpose.

But after finding eight apprentices from dozens of candidates and thousands of applicants, the real question is for Lord Sugar is, that if you believe, “You either got it, or you ain’t” how do you ensure your Apprentices fulfil their potential and become genuine business leaders?

That would be an interesting programme!



3 thoughts on “Moving from an Apprentice to a Leader

  1. I think that the challenge with the word “leadership” is that it means many different things. Using three extreme examples to illustrate my point:
    – leading a battalion of soldiers into battle
    – leading a multidisciplanry team to discover a cure for a disease
    – leading a local council to continue to deliver high quality services whilst cutting budgets and staff

    Charisma might be something that you either have or you don’t, but there are many leadership skills that can be learned. Sure, some people are natural leaders – these people might have a higher degree of emotional intelligence than those that aren’t.

    If I think about what I feel makes a good leader it includes (but is not limited to)
    – identifying clear objectives
    – making plans
    – understanding and managing risk
    – the ability to listen to your team
    – coaching and mentoring your team to achieve or even exceed their potential
    – negotiating and influencing
    – inspiring your team to go the extra mile

    It’s probably the last point that is more related to charisma than something which can be taught in the classroom. But most people can probably improve their ability to do the rest of the items on my list if they put a little work into it.

    Leadership isn’t always about the big things – leading a political party or a multinational business. Leading a scout pack or a team of charity fund-raisers still requires the same abilities and is arguably just as important to the people being led.

    1. No disagreement from me on any of this.. The question is how do you take “effective” people, find the correct project, team and environment for them to lead..

      1. I think it’s a lot about personality and style. Some teams respond better to a coaching leadership style, others to pacesetting. So I’d start by looking at the individual personalities of the team and their group dynamic, and then select a suitable leader.
        Some leaders are great at helping their teams grow whereas others are great driving a team hard (assuming they want to be driven).

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