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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 22, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Celebrity Apprentice and the Real World

If there was one show I vowed I'd never watch, it was Donald Trump's "Apprentice" series.

Not because it was unrealistic twaddle, like Survivor, where artificial situations lead to phonied-up conflicts that are milked like soap operas. But because it starred Donald Trump.

I have found Donald Trump to be a sinkhole of vanity ever since he first started popping up as a self-promoting git on the David Letterman Show twenty-some years ago. I kept expecting him to be revealed as one of Letterman's "characters," like the Guy Under the Seats. No such luck.

But this weekend, visiting with friends, I thought: These are smart people and they like this show. After all, they're the friends who first turned me on to American Gladiator, which so greatly enriched my life for a while. (Ah, Ice, where are ye now, lass?)

I expected to enjoy Celebrity Apprentice in a train wreck kind of way -- staring in horrified fascination until some poor shlub got "fired."

Instead, I found that the weekly contest between teams, while artificial, let to precisely the kind of group interactions that I have seen, over and over again, in the worlds of business, theatre, film, and other bureaucracies.

And Donald Trump? While he looks ridiculous -- sad hair, not aging well, still vain -- the guy has run businesses and he knows how to spot the problems. In the two episodes I've watched (thanks to TiVo, I saw them almost back to back), he fired the right person each time.

And I enjoy watching his adult children Ivanka and Don, who have clearly been trained well in the business. They also seem to have inherited their father's acumen, while leaving the whole vanity business to him.

In each episode, the team of women compete against the team of men. The first episode I saw, the men lost again and it was between Tom Green, that week's losing project leader, and Dennis Rodman, as to who would get fired.

Rodman was exactly what you would expect from his basketball career -- a prima donna, obnoxious, full of self-loathing and fear, unable to admit that he ever did anything wrong, clinging to rationalizations that he knew everyone knew were lies.

He could get away with all this stuff when he was playing basketball, because he was so talented. But at business? Not so much. At obedience, swallowing his ego for the good of the team? Completely hopeless.

But Tom Green was the right guy to fire. He had actually gone off drinking with Rodman, slept in, and had to be woken by team member Jesse James (who is the de facto leader of the group, regardless of who is the titular captain of the week). In no sense did he lead.

The next week, the competition was a strange one -- they had to put on a show. ACN had gathered 500 salespeople in a conference, and each team had to put on a ten-minute product-launch presentation. The salespeople would then vote for which team did a better presentation.

The women completely misunderstood the assignment. They thought they were putting on a show for consumers -- convincing them they needed the product.

The men understood: They were putting on a show for salespeople, and their job was to get them enthused and make them feel good about themselves as a sales team.

It was fascinating to watch the dynamic on the men's team. Rodman, who was still feeling put upon by the "bad treatment" he got the week before (Rodman never does anything wrong, so any criticism is unfair persecution), was particularly annoyed at Clint Black.

Clint Black made the mistake of speaking truth to ego. He pointed out that all of the team were stars -- they were used to getting their way. But they were pretending to be business people for this show, and so they needed to accept that they worked for the team captain, and would have to do what they were told.

This dose of reality did not sit well with Rodman -- especially because Black is about one-quarter of his body mass. (On stage, Black is a great performer and a huge personality; but physically? As he himself joked -- "I was about to stand on a chair and deck him.")

The day began with a coin toss for the best (second) time slot. Clint Black called tails and won. Whereupon Rodman, who had been sulking in a corner, suddenly came at Black, shouting obscenities and aggressively moving into Black's personal space -- a definite assault-in-the-offing.

Black didn't twitch, didn't step back -- and Rodman, being both a bully and a camera-hound, knew better than to touch him. Black was supposed to walk away and look weak; he didn't, so Rodman just looked like a pathetic jerk. He stormed out of the room.

R&B singer Brian McKnight had volunteered to be team captain, and he took complete control at once. It was going to be the Brian McKnight show. There would be dancers; he would sing.

On his team he had Clint Black, who has been putting on great shows for thirty years. But McKnight, with the standard urban contempt for country music, froze Black out of it. Never asked him for the tiniest bit of advice.

Instead, he had Black making phone calls to hire people and rent equipment. Black knew he was being dissed, and he clearly didn't like it -- but he followed his own advice and swallowed the blow to his pride and the insult to his profession. He made the phone calls. And when he emceed, he introduced McKnight with enthusiasm.

That's class, folks.

And here's the topper: Dennis Rodman came back later in the day, but McKnight refused to have anything to do with him. He had walked out -- so as far as McKnight was concerned, he wasn't part of the team. Since the men had lost week after week, they were very short-handed, and McKnight said, "I can't afford to waste somebody to babysit Dennis."

It was gratifying to see McKnight refuse to go along with Rodman's histrionics. At the same time, it was rather thrilling to watch Clint Black reach out to Rodman, coaxing him, teasing him back into peace between the two of them. Black had done nothing wrong, and he was himself being slapped around (so to speak) by McKnight, but he worked to bridge the gap and help Rodman rejoin the group.

By the end of this episode, I admired Clint Black more than anyone else on the show. I wondered if people who worked for him in the real world felt the same way. I imagine so.

McKnight had been quite modest and cooperative in previous episodes, I'm told; but when he was team captain, he declared that it was a "dictatorship."

He's not correct, by the way -- dictatorial managers soon find that all their creative employees have left and only the incompetent remain to do their bidding.

Clint Black could stay because he knew it was just this week and next week somebody else would be boss. In the real world, he would have been out the door as soon as he got a better offer, which would have been almost instantly.

But nothing succeeds like success: While Clint Black could have put on a show that would have gotten the audience just as stoked -- I know this because I've been at a Clint Black performance in front of a conference of salespeople -- McKnight is also good at what he does.

In addition, Jesse James and Herschel Walker had gone up to West Point and filmed a real cadet calling the woman he loved on the ACN picture-telephone. Unlike the women, who used actors and mixed stage performance with cheesy videos, the men had filmed real people having a real conversation.

Toss in all the patriotic images and they had an emotional winner. Salespeople know what's real and what's phony. This was real; they bought it.

The women's team was captained by Claudia Jordan, a suitcase-toting model from Deal or No Deal. She was a disaster from the start.

The project was to put on a show. Melissa Rivers was a producer with many years of experience in doing exactly that. But Claudia didn't understand anything about putting on shows. She thought that leadership was about feelings.

And it is -- in a women's club or gardening society. But not when there's an unchangeable deadline and a show to put on. Rivers saw at once that the brainstorming session was going nowhere -- it was shapeless and nothing was getting done.

So she proposed a program outline. This is how it's done in the real world -- somebody actually makes a concrete proposal and then the boss either rejects it or fiddles with it to make it work.

If Jordan had had a clue about leadership, she would have thanked Melissa and then asked for the input of the rest of the group about Melissa's proposals.

Instead, Jordan felt her position of leadership threatened. This is actually insane, but it happens in business all the time. Instead of thinking: Is this a good idea? Will this help us win? Jordan was thinking: Who's the boss here? I need to put this aggressive person down!

And so she did, telling herself that Melissa's aggressiveness was "abrasive" and assuming that all the other women disliked Melissa as much as she did.

Maybe they did.  But they disliked embarrassing themselves on stage even more. So when Jordan rudely shut Melissa down and effectively ejected her from the team, it was a recipe for disaster, because nobody else there understood how to put on a show.

On the men's team, they had two who understood show production, and one of them was underused -- but it worked, because the one who remained could do the job. On the women's team, they had only one, and so when she was put out to pasture, there was no hope.

Melissa swallowed her pride, admitted she had overstepped her bounds (she hadn't, by the way; only in Idiotland was there anything wrong with what she did), and eventually she did take charge. But only after all the very bad creative decisions had been made.

There was no time to get actors up to speed. They tried to tell too many stories. The visual performances were lame and cheerleadery instead of hip. They never understood that their job was to create a self-image for the sales team -- and that unhipness would never do, since salespeople need to see themselves as cool and successful in order to go out and do their very hard job.

Melissa Rivers was able to get the show put together and on the stage, and it ran smoothly because of her (and those who cooperated with her). But even then, the creative decisions (made without her) had all been so bad that there was no saving it.

But through it all, Claudia Jordan was sniping at her, saying vicious things behind her back, doing everything she could to destroy Melissa socially among the other women. And since nobody actually confronted her and told her to shut up, she thought that everyone agreed with her!

It was so junior high school!

Melissa's mother, Joan -- also on the team -- got back from an appearance at a charity event in Texas by flying overnight; she arrived exhausted, but she got on the stage and was very funny. She was the only part of the women's show that was entertaining and effective.

The verdict was announced. The men had won in a blowout -- 85 percent of the votes went to them and their team. But that was obvious to everyone anyway: McKnight had them on their feet chanting "ACN" at the end of his show; the women got polite applause.

As losing team captain, Jordan got to pick two other people to be on the line for firing. She chose Khloe Kardashian, who had not taken much initiative this week, and Melissa Rivers.

In the boardroom, Trump and his kids laid it on the line. There was no sane reason why Melissa Rivers should have been put on the line to be fired. She had been the most vital member of the team -- she had made everything that worked work.

The only reason she was there, in jeopardy of being fired, was because Jordan didn't like her. And the only reason Jordan didn't like her was ...

Was what? So what if Melissa Rivers was abrasive? She knew how to do the job! She was never a threat to Jordan. All Jordan had to do was take charge, and all of Melissa's talent and experience would have been at her service!

It was fear. It's almost always fear, when managers act like this (and it happens all the time). They have to put down the best of their underlings because they have the absurd idea that in order to be manager, you have to be the smartest and most creative.

How silly! You only have to be manager! You get all your people to do their best work. The ones that shine, you don't steal their credit, you don't hide them, you don't put them down -- you polish them up and show them off!

Nurturing talented underlings is what good managers do.

Instead, Jordan turned into a vicious, sniping bully, doing everything she could to destroy the most effective team member on that project.

And Trump was right to fire her.

Maybe it's not like this every week. Maybe it has moments that are as lame as any other reality show. But I have to say, from the two episodes I saw, people can actually learn something about the dynamics of business by watching.


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