AI will bring about the next fundamental change in leadership qualities
What makes a good leader? In the past, leadership qualities focused on strength, decisiveness, and the ability to successfully carry out a plan. While these traits are still valued in leaders today, gaining – and retaining – a position of authority now requires a complex cocktail of skills including cooperation, collaboration and adaptability. In the face of Artificial Intelligence, business leadership is undergoing a further shift. How is AI disrupting corporate management, and what does it take to be a successful leader in the world of AI?
The agile leader of the AI age
Smart algorithms are decisive, unwavering, and informed. In fact, in many ways they would make very effective leaders. Alongside experience and expertise, these traits can be categorised as hard leadership qualities. Hard leadership qualities are fundamental to traditional figures of authority. However, instead of relying on a knowledgeable human to weigh up a situation and make a plan of action, businesses can leverage Artificial Intelligence. David Lancefield, economics expert and partner in Strategy& at PwC, helps businesses to make the most of disruptive technology.
“In the digital environment, life is much quicker. There’s much more information, and you can easily exhaust yourself,” he says. “Leaders of the digital age need to try and tap into the full potential of the people who work for them, which means they have to have a greater understanding of what their people can do, empower them more, and also ask more questions. Leaders in the digital age are much better at asking questions, and showing some vulnerability in what they don’t know.”
So what happens when AI can handle so much of corporate leg work? Will hard leadership skills be replaced by soft leadership skills like personality, sensitivity, and the ability to be flexible?
Lancefield explains that the most effective leaders do both:
“There are moments where you need decisive, directive leadership, like maybe entering a new market, but you then need to be able to encourage and empower the organisation, creating the conditions in which employees feel safe to try something new. That comes down to rewarding innovation, providing what I call passionate detachment,” he explains. “Passionate detachment is the combination of people being passionate about what they’re trying to achieve, but knowing it’s not the be all and end all of life. The leaders that can combine the hard and soft approaches, and knowing where and when to do so, are the most effective – and they’re a very rare breed.”
The death of the business hierarchy
As AI gradually takes on the tasks traditionally carried out by the leaders and the led, what effect will this have on business hierarchies? Lancefield envisions more open collaboration both within and between organisations.
“Some of the activities of leaders will be facilitated or actually done by AI, but I don’t think you can delegate responsibility in terms of making decisions about improving performance, growing the business, all the usual leadership decisions,” says Lancefield. “There will still be a need for figureheads, but I think it will be more shared because the issues they face are far more complex. There’s so much information about customers, for example, that needs interpretation. There’s more of an opportunity to share responsibility. Part of the role of digital leaders is to simplify the organisation and cut through the hierarchy. Too many organisations have too many layers, too much bureaucracy.”
This change could be incredibly positive for businesses and organisations, attributing worth to all tiers of the hierarchy and building richer relationships, regardless of superiority. With AI on hand to carry out both menial leg work and contribute to vital decision making, having a hierarchy at all could eventually become unnecessary. Many businesses have already realised that running a corporate dictatorship is not how to get the best out of their employees. At the same time, Lancefield says that AI can be daunting for management.
“AI is a significant enabler, but it’s also very demanding for people. If you’re a leader who spends most of your day running processes and consolidating information, a lot of your time is spent just talking about whether the information is correct. If AI plays that role, some people will be able to do what they really want to do – which is make decisions, ask questions, be more creative – but there will be others thinking they haven’t done that for years so it can be quite daunting.”
Now that AI has become far more accessible, will small to medium enterprises be disrupted as much as tech rich companies that already rely on artificially intelligent systems? Lancefield says that sometimes, it can actually be easier for SMEs to introduce and benefit from new technology.
“SMEs are often more nimble than larger organisations. They have a mindset that favours change. It’s often the larger businesses that struggle with deploying emerging technologies like AI because they don’t know where to start. Secondly, they are sometimes more risk averse because they have more heritage and legacy. That can be a straightjacket on innovation. It depends on the willingness and the ability of their leaders to try something new, and keep things simple to cut out wasted effort.”
So, what is the main skill that individuals need to have in order to lead in the digital age?
“Curiosity,” says Lancefield, “And that comes in a number of dimensions. You have to be curious about how emerging technologies could improve the performance of the business. You have to be willing to learn, and immerse yourself. You then have to be curious about the people around you to understand how, where, and why they want to contribute. You also have to be curious about the context you operate in. If you’re not trying to understand why people spend money and time on your company, you’re likely to be pushing the wrong buttons and investing in the wrong areas.”
Artificial Intelligence will have staggering implications for the way that organisations function, and their leaders will be no exception. While the traditional concept of ‘a boss’ isn’t exactly complementary, a focus on combining hard and soft characteristics paints a new picture. As well as facilitating a shift in the perception of good leadership qualities, AI could lead to the transformation of organisational hierarchies. But although AI may narrow down decisions, the final say should always be made by a human (or humans) after due consideration. Applying AI’s recommendations without doing so is both risky and irresponsible.
“You can’t rely on AI alone when making corporate wide strategic decisions,” says Lancefield. Perhaps, for now, he is right.
Are you an agile leader? What other traits does a leader need to have in today’s digital business climate? Will there ever come a time where digital leaders ‘rely on an algorithm’? Share your thoughts and experiences.