It’s tempting to regard artificial intelligence as a threat to human leadership. After all, the very purpose of AI is to augment, improve, and ultimately replace human intelligence, which is still widely regarded — at least by us humans — as our key competitive advantage. There is no reason to believe that leadership will be spared the impact of AI. Research suggests that, in an AI age characterized by intense disruption and rapid, ambiguous change, we need to rethink the essence of effective leadership. Certain qualities, such as deep domain expertise, decisiveness, authority, and short-term task focus, are losing their cachet, while others, such as humility, adaptability, vision, and constant engagement, are likely to play a key role in more-agile types of leadership.
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It is tempting to regard artificial intelligence as a threat to human leadership. After all, the very purpose of AI is to augment, improve, and ultimately replace human intelligence, which is still widely regarded, at least by us humans, as our key competitive advantage. There is no reason to believe that leadership will be spared the impact of AI. Indeed, it is very likely that AI will supplant many aspects of the “hard” elements of leadership — that is, the parts responsible for the raw cognitive processing of facts and information. At the same time, our prediction is that AI will also lead to a greater emphasis on the “soft” elements of leadership — the personality traits, attitudes, and behaviors that allow individuals to help others achieve a common goal or shared purpose.
A shift from the hard to soft elements of leadership is not exclusive to the AI age. Meta-analytic studies reviewing 50 years of research suggest that personality traits such as curiosity, extraversion, and emotional stability are twice as important as IQ — the benchmark metric for reasoning capability — when it comes to predicting leadership effectiveness.
But to what extent can we rely on the many decades of scholarship that have sought to define the qualities, traits, and attributes of this soft side of leadership? On the one hand, leadership evolved through thousands of years, so its foundations are unlikely to change. On the other hand, one cannot deny the potent influence that environmental changes may have in reshaping the critical skills and behaviors that will make leaders effective (and ineffective). At some point in our history, probably with the advent of language, leadership acumen transitioned from physical to cognitive skills, putting a premium on intelligence and expertise at the expense of force and strength. By the same token, one would expect the current AI revolution to commoditize and automate the data-driven aspect of leadership, delegating the soft elements of leadership to humans. Consistently, our research suggests that, in an AI age characterized by intense disruption and rapid, ambiguous change, we need to rethink the essence of effective leadership. Certain qualities, such as deep domain expertise, decisiveness, authority, and short-term task focus, are losing their cachet, while others, such as humility, adaptability, vision, and constant engagement, are likely to play a key role in more-agile types of leadership. Here’s a closer look at these competencies:
Humility. In an age of rapid change, knowing what you don’t know is as valuable as knowing what you do. Unfortunately, leaders are often shielded from learning about new developments by the sheer volume and variety of new information that is captured daily. Leaders in the AI age need to be willing to learn and be open to seeking input from both inside and outside their organizations. They also need to trust others to know more than they do. This knowledge may well come from someone 20 years younger or three levels down the organizational hierarchy. In the AI age, an effective leader understands that someone having lower status or less experience doesn’t mean they cannot make a key contribution.
Companies like Nestlé have implemented extensive reverse mentoring programs. These initiatives are meant to institutionalize the process of learning to accept, welcome, and leverage the knowledge of team members, peers, and employees for the benefit of the business. Being humble may sound inconsistent with the need to exude an image of confidence and authority. Yet there has always been a very weak relationship between confidence and actual competence, such that true experts are often more humble than individuals with very little or no expertise. As the British philosopher Bertrand Russell famously noted, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Adaptability. At an organizational level, adaptability means being ready to innovate and respond to opportunities and threats as they appear. At an individual level, it means being open to new ideas, changing an opinion even when it hurts or threatens one’s ego, and being able to effectively communicate that revised opinion to relevant stakeholders, including peers, teams, and customers. In an AI age, changing one’s mind, which can often be regarded as a sign of weakness or lack of conviction, should be perceived as a strength when it improves decision making. Adaptable leaders are not afraid to commit to a new course of action when the situation warrants, and their adaptability allows them to confront challenges with a focus on learning rather than being right.
Carlos Torres Vila, the CEO of Spanish bank BBVA, oversaw the transformation of the company from a traditional brick-and-mortar bank into one of the most successful financial services organizations of the digital era. He responded to industry disruption by fostering a transformative culture that encourages agility, flexibility, collaborative work, entrepreneurial spirit, and innovation.
Vision. Vision has always played an important role in effective leadership. But in an AI age characterized by rapid technology and business model disruption, a clear vision is even more pivotal, because there is less clarity among followers, subordinates, and employees about where one should go, what one should do, and why. Leaders with a clear vision have compelling, meaningful answers to these questions and are better at communicating them in an effective way. Furthermore, vision allows a leader to implement necessary organizational transformations without caving to short-term interests.
Many leaders of today’s digital giants, such as Amazon, Tesla, Facebook, Tencent, Alibaba, and Google, have clearly articulated visions for their organizations, even in the face of huge short-term uncertainty.
Engagement. Lastly, to be successful in the AI age, a leader must remain constantly engaged with their surrounding environment so that they can be attuned to, and adapt to, the signals rather than the noise — which will either threaten (disruptors) or support (potential partners) their vision. Agile leaders need to stay engaged, but they also need to find ways to keep their teams engaged, particularly when the going gets rough and the path becomes challenging.
Engagement in an AI age can increasingly be accomplished using digital means. For example, German e-commerce giant Zalando has implemented a variety of digital tools for top management to capture and respond to topics of interest from all employees. These include zTalk, a live chat application; zLive, a company-wide social intranet; and zBeat, a tool that regularly surveys employees about their current work experiences.
Does all this suggest that leadership is radically different in the AI age? No, but there are two key distinctions. First, leaders’ hard skills will continue to be eclipsed by smart machines, while their soft skills will become ever more important. Second, while timeless leadership traits like integrity and emotional intelligence will no doubt remain important, leaders in the AI age need to be humble about others’ contributions, adaptable to the challenges that get thrown into their paths, steadfast in their vision of the ultimate destination on this path, and constantly engaged with the changing world around them.