While NBC’s “The Apprentice” has soared in the ratings — with over 20 million viewers for its most recent episode — one Yale School of Management professor has become a vocal critic of the popular program.
SOM Associate Dean Jeff Sonnenfeld is one of twelve commentators who have written weekly evaluations of the show for USA Today. He has also discussed “The Apprentice” on the Today Show, CNBC and Good Morning America and published op-ed columns in both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Sonnenfeld said he has “deep reservations” about how the show presents the values of leadership and portrays corporate leaders to the general public.
“Basically, the show creates a very dysfunctional organizational arrangement and brings out some of the worst of human nature in competitive situations, and it’s more akin to ‘Lord of the Flies’ than it is to management at its best,” Sonnenfeld said.
On the show, teams compete in business ventures and host Donald Trump periodically fires contestants — a routine that has led to the increased popularity of the phrase “You’re fired!” The show is set up so teammates compete against each other and people are fired for displaying strength and integrity, Sonnenfeld said.
“The criteria they use for selection is sort of akin to musical chairs at a Hooter’s restaurant,” he said. “It’s a very sex-driven view of organization that smacks of a lot of giggly, middle school-type values. And the essence of leadership as presented on the show is nothing more than unctuous, pushy salesmanship — the kind of stuff that kids learn not to do in preschool.”
As a result of Sonnenfeld’s criticisms, he and Trump have exchanged heated letters to the editor in both the Journal and the Times.
Viewers appreciate the realism of the program and many business schools have chosen to have their students watch “The Apprentice” as part of the curriculum, Trump wrote in the Journal.
“I would have to say that [Sonnenfeld] lacks the insight required to understand the architecture of a corporation, and his review reflects that lack of knowledge,” Trump wrote. “Perhaps that is why he is a professor at Yale instead of the Wharton School of Finance (my alma mater).”
Sonnenfeld said Trump is “a much nicer person than the curmudgeon he portrays on TV,” but has not led a completely successful career in business. Trump has also attacked Yale as an unsuitable place to train the nation’s leaders, Sonnenfeld said.
SOM students in Sonnenfeld’s class generally shared Sonnenfeld’s view of the show. Dateline recently visited the class in order to tape the discussion and an interview with Sonnenfeld. The program will air in conjuction with the show’s finale next week.
“I think it’s kind of an overmarketed, overpublicized spectacle and it’s probably not the best way to teach and learn business,” Rob LaChance SOM ’04 said. “Business is a lot more complicated than they make it out to be.”
Although Sonnenfeld and his students admitted the show’s entertainment value, they said it could ultimately have a negative impact on the already skeptical way the public views corporate leaders.
“People that aren’t necessarily in business may get a bad picture of business from the show,” Jeff Cramer SOM ’04 said. “Trump kind of personifies everything that’s been wrong with CEO’s for the past few years.”
“The Apprentice” airs on Thursdays at 9 p.m. Eastern time.