by Kerry Patterson | November 19, 2010
If you tune in weekly to watch Donald Trump fire a wannabe executive, you’ve probably noticed that his popular TV show doesn’t exactly display leaders at their best. Preening for the camera, stabbing teammates in the back, and massaging a massive ego aren’t exactly exemplary leadership practices.

Each week we watch contestants on The Apprentice routinely mess up administrative minutiae, argue over who forgot to balance the budget, and rant about relatively trivial aspects in an effort to blame teammates and ensure they don’t succumb to Trump’s infamous words: “You’re fired!”

And yet, not all contestants are hopeless. In fact, several are quite talented and just might make good leaders given the right opportunities.

If you watch the show closely, you can spot the contestants who will make the best leaders. How? Watch how they step up in heated, high-stakes discussions. Two decades of research with more than 25,000 people has taught me one thing: The best leaders and the most influential employees share one talent in common – they’re masters of crucial confrontations. They work through high-stakes issues in a way that solves problems and builds relationships.

In contrast, the least effective leaders sit back and shake their heads in disapproval until they can’t take it any longer—and then they strike out with an insult or a cheap shot. First they’re silent, next they’re violent. Or if they’re particularly ineffectual, they say nothing to the person directly. Some of Donald’s apprentices choose to complain to the viewing audience—as if badmouthing a colleague in front of 10 million people is somehow the mark of a good leader.

Below are three keys to leadership success that will help you become a master problem-solver while strengthening your relationships.

1. Don’t Begin with an Accusation
As you watch the apprentices step up to someone who has failed to live up to a promise (something that happens a lot on the show), note their tone and demeanor. Have they already held court in their heads and found the person guilty? Does the verdict, e.g., “You’re a moron, what were you thinking?” show up on their faces, their tone of voice, their choice of words?

In every crucial confrontation, the tone is set during the “Hazardous Half-Minute”—the first 30 seconds of the conversation. So prepare yourself before you open your mouth. Ask yourself why a reasonable, rational, decent person just let you down. Let the healing balm of good assumptions prepare you for your first few words. If the person is guilty as charged, you’ll have a chance to deal with that later, but don’t start every conversation with the assumption of guilt.

2. Start with the Facts
As you watch the apprentices try to hold each other accountable (the same holds true for the people you work with), someone is sure to start sharing their feelings. That’s because most people would tell you that you need to start problem-solving discussions by sharing your feelings. Wrong.

Your feelings are the least factual and most controversial part of what you have to share. You observe something, you tell yourself an ugly story, e.g., “That bozo was out to get me!” you generate a feeling, and then you act on it. So don’t start with feelings. They could be based on a false set of assumptions. Start with the facts: “Here’s what I saw.” Then end with a diagnostic question, “Is that what happened?”

3. Avoid Using Power to Get What You Want
Finally, see if the wannabe leaders are drawing down on some sort of power. Do they make threats or try to embarrass the other person? Do they gang up on a team member to get him or her fired? If so, they’re on the wrong track.

Two decades of watching people who were picked by their peers as their most influential people has proven that people who have power don’t use it extrinsically. Instead of their external power, they use their ability to communicate. They explain the natural consequences associated with failure. People are often unaware of the problems they may be causing others. They may not know the pain they’re passing on to clients or coworkers. So trade your power for a simple explanation and continue down the path of healthy dialogue.

Think about the contestants you admire most. Sure, they are bright, but they don’t always come up with the best ideas. Nobody does. Perhaps they even drop the occasional ball. Everybody does. But they always do one thing well: They‘re skilled at working with their colleagues. They consistently demonstrate the dialogue keys.

Learn how to master these three keys, and you’ll be viewed by both your boss and your colleagues as the best at wielding influence. So tune in next week and watch for the keys. Then ask yourself, “How do I stack up?” For an immediate answer, go online and take a free self-assessment at to see where you stand.

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of three New York Times bestselling books: Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer. His fourth book, Change Anything, is scheduled for release in April 2011. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, as well as a sought-after speaker and consultant to the Fortune 500. He and his coauthors blog regularly at .