Follow the leader

Matthew Reeves on The Apprentice and what makes a good leader

I love November. Autumnal colours, your crisp breath cutting though the clean morning air, the retail industry resurrecting Christmas. And as that happy season approaches, here come sloppy regurgitated TV formats, filmed in the summer and now spoon-fed into our gaping, unimaginative mouths. The main course? Toddlers' Apprentice.

Unlike normal folk, children always have the ability to be just a little bit gormless. You can take the best straight A student from the best school in the land, and they're still liable to be found staring into space with hair that appears to have been borrowed from a dinner lady. And on Toddlers' Apprentice*, the actual ability and acumen of the children is always kept optimistically vague. One or two of the fledglings have run multiple businesses, which would be highly admirable - if they actually made money. In most cases it transpires that the "fashion designer" could more accurately be described as a sole trading seamstress by HM Revenue & Customs. And buying bangers and BB guns on a school trip in France and selling them in the common room is a fairly commonplace black market trade in schools up and down the country, yet the parents of another precocious scamp inevitably talk up little Lucian's import/export business as if he's Abramovich during the fall of communism.

I love watching these contestants being stuck in a room and told to "lead". I have strong feelings about good leaders, formed mostly from my addiction to TED Talks. One of the most interesting things about notable leaders - Henry Ford, Barack Obama, Bill Gates - is that they are, or were, all good at something in which they have or had an interest. Although I'm sure Bill would give it a good old crack of the whip, I wouldn't expect him to create a new frozen baby food product, or whatever. But these kinds of tasks on TV shows like Toddlers' Apprentice just perpetuate the erroneous notion that if you want to be a success, you should be good at everything, even the things you're not interested in.

Furthermore, the "answer" to all these challenges is always just to research the market and then to make consumers what they want, which I think is also a wrong-headed view of business leadership. Henry Ford is supposed to have said: "If I'd asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse." The best leaders don't need to ask people what they want. They can imagine the future.

All this rambling isn't because I love to overanalyse reality TV (although I do). I think it illustrates a larger point: according to TV and many students applying to internships and grad schemes to be a good business leader you have to do a lot of things quite well, and do what you're told by your market. But to me that's the perfect description of a merely average leader.

So I think it's worth remembering that there's many types of leader - and Lord Sugar's boardroom only shows us one kind.