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Lifting the ‘Apprentice’ curse

Taking charge doesn't always get losing manager fired
/ Source: contributor

Until the most recent episode, the Boardrooms in "The Apprentice"'s third season followed a predictable pattern.  Trump, George, and Carolyn pointed to a lack of leadership, or poor decision-making at the top, as the cause of the team's loss; then Trump fired the project manager — almost without exception. 

The firing of John broke the streak; PM Chris made a few tactical errors and came in for some harsh criticism, but he survived.  Should he have?  Should Trump have spared John instead?  And should Trump have spared any of the PMs he's fired so far this season?

Although viewers might have wondered if Trump had gone on autopilot, firing each week's team leader more or less by rote, most of the previous firings did make sense.  The show isn't a popularity contest; its ostensible point is to select an executive, a person who can come up with creative ideas and execute them efficiently, a person who gets along with others and can manage them effectively.  None of the Apprenti is going to do all of these things flawlessly all the time, but a demonstrable inability to lead a team is an excellent reason to punt a candidate.

Chris held his own as a team leader.  In a task that required the teams to negotiate prizes with music talent for a charity auction, as well as to coordinate the TV spot that would promote the auction, Chris delegated the negotiation to John.  George took issue with that decision, at some length, but it made sense, given the time constraints Chris had to work under and the fact that Chris is perhaps not the strongest on the team in terms of interpersonal skills.  He claimed that he's a strong negotiator, but he probably prevails in negotiations because he's so scarily intense; sending John made more sense, in theory.

But in practice, John's ego is out of hand; he's a schmoozer, but he's not as good at it as he thinks, and his tendency to condescend to, pimp out, interrupt, and outright dismiss the women on his team isn't just irritating — it's foolhardy and bad for business.  And on this particular task, he lowballed the talent.  His mistake; his responsibility. 

Should Chris have started shouting (and, it's worth noting, sweating profusely) in the Boardroom?  No.  Will he get much farther in this game if he can't modulate his emotions better than he has?  No.  Should Trump have fired John anyway?  Yes.  Most of the fault lies with John, and compared with some of the Custer-esque failures we've seen in leadership so far this season, Chris did just fine.

Most PMs deserved firingBut most of the fault lay with prior firees, too.  Todd got fired for absenting himself from the task entirely; he left the team shorthanded, they lost as a result, and he got fired.  Brian made bad decisions, refused any input from his teammates, and went from zero to abrasive in about ten seconds; unworkable ideas and an unwork-with-able personality got him fired.  Kristen and Tara both misunderstood the task, didn't deliver what their clients wanted, and got fired as a result.  Audrey over-delegated, whined, didn't put her foot down with John, and got fired. 

The only PM who probably should have escaped, but didn't: Danny, who couldn't control the obnoxious, lazy Michael.  Michael, universally loathed in the suite and by the audience, should have taken a firing for backstroking through the task on his exemption.  The rules don't permit a firing in that case, however, and because he couldn't axe Michael, Trump had to fire Danny.

But Trump and his Viceroys frequently point out to PMs that it's part of the job to manage "difficult" members of the team — and that's absolutely right.  Executives have to get results from the Michaels and Omarosas of the world when they won't focus or follow instructions; in the real world, stockholders don't want to hear you pointing fingers at underlings.  Trump knows that, and has started firing those who don't get it. 

Last week, offered a perfect example of the issue facing Trump each week: should he fire John for not pulling his weight and antagonizing the PM, or fire the PM herself for not cuffing John into line?  Firing Audrey was the correct choice. 

John is not an anomaly; female executives have to deal with guys like him every day, guys who appoint themselves "PM of the office" regardless of who's actually in charge, and expect to get away with it.  Audrey let John push every single one of her buttons, and as annoying as he was, she should have put a stop to it — but didn't, or couldn't. And if that's the case, she's not executive material.

The repeated firing of the project manager isn't a knee-jerk reaction on Trump's part, although it might have seemed like one.  On the contrary, it's probably a considered decision to put the focus of the show back on executive qualifications, instead of personality disorders and gimmicks. 

By making the PMs take more responsibility for leadership — a key part of the job description — Trump is letting the show take more responsibility for itself as a job interview.  He still wants to make "yooge" TV, but after the second season was roundly criticized for taking its eye off the ball, Trump might also want to make the show respectable — about merits, not stunts.  It isn't about whether Trump always fires the PM; it's about whether he always fires the most deserving Apprentice.

And if he's taking that job seriously, PM Trump isn't fired either.

Sarah D. Bunting is the co-creator and co-editor-in-chief of Television Without She lives in Brooklyn.