Leadership in a AI-driven World: The Case for Humble Leaders

AI threatens to change business as we know it. But leaders can steer their companies through the turmoil if they are prepared to unlearn and relearn the nature of leadership, says Aurore Belfrage.
Aurore Belfrage
Jun 05, 2019

Do you miss the days when senior executives didn’t utter the words ‘AI’ or ‘artificial intelligence’ every few hours? The hype will surely pass, but the technology is here to stay; and many industries – including yours – will be affected before too long. So how can executives get to grips with the basics, foster enthusiasm and adapt the way they lead?

AI covers many types of technology and is used for a broad range of objectives. Put simply: AI is a system (or computer) that can analyze crazy amounts of data, take decisions autonomously and adapt to new information.

Most of us won’t understand how AI works. That shouldn’t matter – few of us, after all, understand the inner workings of our mobile phones. Instead, executives should focus on what can be done with the technology. Indeed, management teams globally are trying to figure out how to use AI and understand what this paradigm shift will mean for their industries and organizations.

Rather than build an app without first understanding why – as many executives did in 2009 – they might start by listing their key drivers. For example, what generates costs and revenue? How, and with what data, do you measure success? How can AI catalyze business expansion? Once this is determined, let AI grow incrementally as excitement around it builds.

Change leaders

AI will also change the typical ways we view today’s leaders as strong and analytical. Computers will be far better at analyzing data and making strategic decisions. So leaders will increasingly be required to develop other – more human – abilities: emotional intelligence, motivating teams to work better together, and managing new stakeholders, in order to tackle new problems in new ways.

 Above all, leaders will have to accept their own limitations, and have the humility to ask simple questions.

Above all, leaders will have to accept their own limitations. That means having sufficient humility to ask simple questions and unlearn and relearn what they thought they had already mastered.

Here are some examples of how AI might shift our thinking about leadership:

The gender pay gap. Although this should long have been a thing of the past, biases and legacy processes persist. Now, AI can help executives screen the organization and employees, assess their academic accomplishments, and even measure their respective contributions to any given project. AI isn’t administratively cumbersome, and doesn’t care about formal job titles, so it could prove highly efficient in identifying where the real pay gaps lie.

Negotiations. We all know the basics of Game Theory: if you can trust your opposite number not to lie, then you (and usually they too) will win. But too often we try to outsmart each other and everyone ends up losing. AI research within business intelligence is helping us structure negotiations (as well as nudging us to be more polite and engaging) for maximum benefit.

Learning new tricks. Many jobs will become redundant and the only way to create new purpose for deskilled employees may be to institute lifelong learning. This is not as burdensome as it might seem. Smart algorithms can track employees’ individual learning patterns and develop perfectly tailored and paced training models for each individual.

Security. Keeping your data safe should already be a priority. The plethora of AI hacks, deepfakes, intrusions and theft today can seem overwhelming. According to the 2018 Malicious AI Report, we need good AI to monitor ‘bad AI’. That means beefing up your technology and security teams and creating a culture of perpetual surveillance.

If futurist Roy Amara’s observation – that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run – is correct then a truly huge opportunity awaits the adaptable leader, perhaps sooner than we expect.