Decoding The Apprentice

A 9 to 5 Editorial 

I’m one of the few people in this world who can honestly say that it’s my job to watch NBC’s stratospherically-popular program, The Apprentice. On the show, eighteen candidates vie for the opportunity to land a six-figure job running a company for Donald Trump, the leading real estate developer in New York City. “It’s a fifteen week job interview,” says Trump–an interview process where candidates are divided into two teams, the teams compete each week on a managerial task, and then one person from the losing team is “fired” (i.e., ousted from the show). Ultimately, the last candidate standing gets the job offer and is crowned The Apprentice.

I say that it’s my job to watch the show because I’m the dean of a business school that cares deeply about the direction of our culture. Consequently, I’m asked by the media on occasion to comment on the show, and it hardly makes for good press to say: “I’ve got better things to do with my evenings…and you should too.”

So I’ve ingested every minute of this season and frankly, I’m annoyed about more than the lost evenings. The show advances some of the very assumptions about business, leadership, interpersonal relations, and success that our Business School seeks to correct. Directly or indirectly, among the values advanced on The Apprentice are these:

  • Money and possessions are synonymous with “success.” The show’s theme song says it all. In 60 seconds, it uses the word “money” no fewer than twenty times–even going so far as to use the term “Almighty Dollar”–while flashing copious graphics of luxury cars, corporate jets, and thousand dollar bills. To top it off, this linkage between possessions and the good life is reinforced with the boldfaced graphic: “What if you could have it all?”
  • Relatedly, profit is the purpose of business. It’s the ultimate objective. Almost every week, the winning team is determined exclusively by who made the most profit. Nothing more, nothing less. End of discussion.
  • Trump is a role model for leaders. Accordingly, good leaders are terse, impatient and feared. They also have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to failure. Which leads us to this:
  • Under-performance demands capital punishment. You screw up, you’re gone. Make whatever eloquent case you can for why things didn’t work out, but at the end of the day, the least competent person from that week is sent packing.

In the world of The Apprentice, finger-pointing, gossiping, backbiting, and ganging-up on people are acceptable behaviors. In fact, they’re virtues because they’re pragmatic. The show devotes a generous amount of time to contestants conspiring against one another and forming political alliances against members of their own team before going into the boardroom. That’s because once in the boardroom, Trump seems to require them to blame one another for problems that are typically group deficiencies. Hedge for even a moment when asked who should be fired and it may be you.

Now, in fairness, the show does champion creativity, quick thinking, resourcefulness, and good stewardship–values that we in Christian higher ed enthusiastically cheer. But those values are eclipsed by the show’s stereotyped view of what business is all about, of what it takes to succeed, and of what constitutes “success” in the first place. Given its audience of sixteen million viewers per week (and forty million for last year’s final episode), perhaps nothing in our day has done as much damage to the movement toward enlightened business leadership.

That enlightened view, showcased in corporations like Southwest Airlines, ServiceMaster, Men’s Wearhouse, Mary Kay, Chick-fil-A, The SAS Institute, AES and countless others, entails conceptualizing profit as a means, not an end in business. It views the corporation as having a broad social responsibility to all stakeholders–as an agent of the common good in this world, as a tool that exists to improve people’s lives.

That enlightened view entails management by humility and servanthood, rather than by fear and intimidation. It prefers people to profits, relationship to rivalry, grace to greed, and often–au contraire–forgiveness to firing.

Moreover, when it comes to defining “personal success”–arguably the show’s darkest hour–an alternative view is that success is uncorrelated with money or possessions. One would think that we would no longer need to make such axiomatic statements, but clearly we do. They’re not getting through to many of the culture-shapers of our day.

And for Christians in leadership positions, as well as Christians throughout the workforce, there’s one final take-away from The Apprentice. We too should strive to be apprentices. Not of Mr. Trump, of course, or of any mere mortal for that matter. As Dallas Willard reminds us in The Divine Conspiracy, we are to be apprentices of Jesus, seeing him clearly, surrendering to him daily, emulating him in everything we do.

That’s real success in business and in life. Success from God’s perspective.

Michael Zigarelli was the Dean of the Regent University School of Business when he wrote this editorial in 2005. He is currently a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the editor of