The B-School Professor & Donald Trump

Trump charmed a highly critical business school professor

Trump charmed a highly critical business school professor

In the BT (Before Twitter) years, one of the most prominent gurus on corporate leadership blasted The Donald’s style of managing people and culture. At the height of the popularity of “The Apprentice,” the NBC reality TV show that brought Trump a mass audience, Yale University School of Management Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld tore into the show and its star.

“Despite Mr. Trump’s claims that ‘The Apprentice’ should be required viewing at the nation’s top business schools,” wrote Sonnenfeld, the senior associate dean for leadership programs at Yale’s business school. “I don’t see how weekly viewings of a billionaire shouting ‘You’re Fired’ will benefit tomorrow’s leaders. Rather than show inspirational team leadership and the building of coherent cultures, ‘The Apprentice’ teams are designed as circular firing squads, hardly the staffing pattern of an enduring enterprise.”


Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale's School of Management

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale’s School of Management

There was more. “The selection process resembles a game of musical chairs at a Hooters restaurant. … ‘The Apprentice’ is not a corporate reality show, it’s a business gong show.”

Sonnenfeld’s scathing critique, published in The Wall Street Journal in 2004, drew a fairly tame public response from The Donald. So did several other critical pieces Sonnenfeld wrote as well as a dozen or so TV appearances he made to get his disapproval across. At the time, the leadership guru was one of the few professors in academia to openly challenge the precepts of Trump’s blockbuster show. “I thought that it was dangerous to present so cynical a view of leadership with engaging young people in a hostile, short-term, zero-sum game world,” Sonnenfeld tells Poets&Quants.

Trump predictably fired back — but not on Twitter. This was, after all, years before Trump discovered Twitter, his medium of choice to go after critics from Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton. Trump didn’t even call Sonnenfeld, one of the world’s pre-eminent leadership scholars, “goofy” or “crooked.”


Instead, Trump, who has an undergraduate degree in business from Wharton, replied back via “NBC Dateline” and The Wall Street Journal, noting that Sonnenfeld lacked “the understanding of the architecture of a corporation, which is why he teaches at Yale instead of Wharton!!”

Then, one spring day in New Haven, Connecticut, the phone rang in Sonnenfeld’s office at Yale. Trump had actually called Sonnenfeld several times but the professor kept dodging the calls. By accident, he picked up the phone and on the other line came the voice that had publicly fired and humiliated hundreds on national television.

“He thought that I was misguided and didn’t understand the reality of the way business works and what he was trying to do with the show, and that there were great lessons of leadership in every show,” Sonnenfeld recalls.

The professor remembers telling Trump that “his lessons of leadership were a pretty dark view of humanity” and “that business isn’t about destroying your competition to succeed.”

Sonnenfeld called Trump “cynical.” Trump called the professor “naive.”


They agreed to disagree and then, out of the blue, Trump offered Sonnenfeld a job. The real estate mogul told him he was about to launch a university named after himself. Would Sonnenfeld like to be president?

The professor, noting that he was quite happy at Yale’s School of Management, turned down the offer. In retrospect, believes Sonnenfeld, “He was going to try to drown the squeaky wheel with oil.”

But then there was another surprise. Trump invited Sonnenfeld to play golf at his club just outside New York. While Sonnenfeld is hardly a golfer, his wife certainly is. So the professor took Trump up on his invite, bringing his wife and a Yale business school colleague, Barry Nalebuff, a professor of management and an expert in applying game theory to business strategy. So Sonnenfeld, his wife and Nalebuff all had lunch with Trump at an outdoor café at the club.

“He was disarming in his candor and charm with a willingness to see what I needed to stop being so critical,” Sonnenfeld recalls. “He said that the elimination game formula was key to the show. I then said, ‘Why not substitute the easy-to-identify-with innocent, ambitious young people for fallen stars who were already known as sultans of insult?’ In particular, I suggested Joan Rivers, Andrew Dice Clay, Jackie Mason, Don Rickles — all public figures who were so acerbic towards others that they deserved each other. He liked the idea and said he’d transition the show towards that model. I agreed to hold my fire until he could morph ‘The Apprentice’ into ‘The Celebrity Apprentice’ and he was good for his word.”


To his “horror and amazement,” Sonnenfeld says, he came away from the lunch at Trump National Golf Club in Westchester kind of liking the guy.

Both Sonnenfeld and Nalebuff, a Rhodes scholar who earned his doctorate at Oxford University, were charmed. So was Sonnenfeld’s wife. Trump complimented both Nalebuff and Sonnenfeld’s wife on their own entrepreneurial ideas.

For a while, both the professor and The Donald had a bit of fun with the difference of opinion on the show. The pair were set up for a debate in Kuala Lumpur in 2005 to do a reprise of their perspectives on the show in public. And then Trump accepted Sonnenfeld’s invitation to appear before an audience of critical CEOs at the professor’s annual Yale CEO Summit. “When Trump arrived at that event,” Sonnenfeld remembers, “jaws dropped as he walked into The Waldorf’s lobby, as if the Pope had just arrived. One awestruck father even momentarily let go of his baby carriage as Trump passed by. Most tellingly, all of our CEO guests laughed and applauded his antics — with jokes at my expense — and forgot all of their pointed questions.”

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