SONY DSCThe Office (UK or US version) continues to be one of the most popular TV programmes depicting life in the office. If you have half-year appraisals coming up, you must watch their version of events

Yet I can hardly bear to watch them. I worried that I was becoming David Brent in real life. Trotting out the latest management buzzwords, meaning to be sincere yet sounding like a plonker/dork/(insert suitable synonym for idiot). I knew what I was saying came from the heart but it was all sounding a bit “David Brent”.

But could my team tell the difference between authentic and fake?

I’ve never asked them but my gut feel is that we can ALWAYS tell if someone is faking it. So what does real leadership sound and look like?

Which brings me to the new season of the BBC business reality show The Apprentice (See the home page to get a taster of what it is about). By the way, is “reality show” an oxymoron here?

What’s it about?

The premise is that 16 bright young things go through a series of team challenges each week hoping to be the one person picked by a serial British entrepreneur, Lord Sugar, to win significant investment to set up a business. Having resisted it watching it for years, I am now hooked. It’s a classic TV format: a grumpy but powerful CEO, flanked by his two sidekicks, who monitor the 2 teams trying to win that week’s business challenge. Successes, failures, “he said this”, “she did that”, “it’s not my fault”.

Tempers, tantrums, tears.

If you’ve not seen it before, it will remind you of all those team-building courses you’ve done before! The bad bits, though.

There is the superb tension between the contestants wanting their team to win and making sure they shine in the task, whilst trying to deftly stab their colleagues in the back. For them, there is an “I” in team (now I am sounding like David Brent!).

The Apprentice is a brilliant way to refresh your ideas and beliefs about what leadership really means for you. As a passive observer, it’s too easy to think “I would ever do that”, but when it’s you in charge of a task, you never know.

5 leadership lessons from the 1st Apprentice episode.

1. Focus on your strengths to succeed in life.

One team was headed by an accountant, Edward Hunter. They had £250 to buy the raw ingredients to make and profitably sell breakfast and lunch items to London City employees. Yet he did not share his business plan, projected profits or even how the money should be split for purchasing their raw materials to make their product lines (soup and fresh orange juice). He was trying to break away from his accountancy label yet failed to openly build on his strongest talent, his flare for numbers.

2. Draw on the strengths and ideas from others.

When the teams were working well together and getting the job done, it was because team members were focusing on what they did best. When the task was going wrong, it was the project leader who had listened to their colleagues and changed the plan that successfully turned the situation around.

3. Balance your “hands on” approach with leading and directing operations.

No-one respects a leader who has either never done the job themselves or at least tried to understand what is involved, the key issues and the intricacies. But your role as a leader is to lead, not get drawn into “doing” too often. When one project leader was out selling with their colleagues, she was unable to deal with a problem brewing in the production sub-team, who were based at a remote site. Subsequently they ran out of stock so did not maximise their profits.

4. Bully tactics don’t work.

I’ve never seen outright bullying management styles in Medical Information people – we’re all too nice (which can be fault in itself)! However barking instructions to talented professionals without sharing your master plan and giving them the opportunity to contribute is the short journey to failure. Seeing bullies in action is a great contrasting scenario: do you get like that at all? Is there something about their directness which can be softened to be appropriate at the right time/situation?

5. You can’t fake it.

With training, people can become strong managers and leaders. But if it isn’t what they really want to do or they have significant behavioural traits that will continually sabotage their performance, at some point their career will stall (Think Gareth from The Office). This can be a tragedy for them but just as bad, a disaster for their teams.

So how should it be done?

Real Leadership In Action.

Ironically, I then watched a programme showing how it should be done. It was a day in the life of a busy London hospital Accident & Emergency unit. Like a sick cliche, a young man had been run over by a bus. Watching the trauma team prepare then spring into action was poetry in motion. It was slick, fast, effective, calm; everyone knew their role and worked around each other, almost without words. Lead by an experienced trauma consultant, they managed to stabilise the man and save his life. The contrast with the Apprentice teams was stark. Why?

  • They were all experienced professionals who knew their role in the team.
  • There was a well-thought through plan that had been used and refined many times before.
  • There was clear, precise briefing at appropriate points – everyone listened intently.
  • The leader knew when to stand back to let others look after the patient and when to step in to use his clinical skills and assessment of how the patient was doing. Then call in additional help, if necessary.
  • They had reserve resources waiting. There was a high risk that other clinical specialists would need to suddenly step in to assess and treat a new clinical complication.
  • They were calm and efficient – no bullying, no flapping – but plenty of action.
  • They constantly told the patient what as going on, even though he was unconscious, so were mindful of his needs (physical and emotional), in this grave situation.
  • Afterward, the nurses relaxed and used humour to help defuse the tension so they could continue to cope tough situations without cracking up themselves or becoming hardened to human suffering.

So when you see leadership in action, trust me, you’ll know when it’s the real thing.