Artificial intelligence will require more human leaders

Reports from McKinsey and PwC suggest that artificial intelligence (AI) could contribute up to USD 15.7 trillion to global growth by 2030. This number is so staggeringly large that we need our good old excel spreadsheet just to come to grips with the number of zeros. The next challenge is to comprehend, with our finite brain capacity, how this would translate into jobs, revenue and business potential.

These massive growth forecasts have led international AI gurus like Mark Minevich to conclude that if companies don’t get involved in AI and claim their piece of the ‘AI cake’, they will end up being buried in the not-so-artificial cemetery.

Leaders know too little about artificial intelligence

But the question is, what should you do as an employee or manager in a small or medium sized company when you hear such forecasts? The easiest thing would be to either dismiss it as a buzzword, or conclude that it only applies to everyone else. I don’t think that is the best approach, although definitely the least demanding.

And perhaps not the most exciting either, because if you are passionate about leadership and innovative thinking, as I am, these global perspectives offer a wealth of opportunities. This demands action now, but qualified action is often accompanied by a deeper understanding. So where are we on that front in relation to AI?

I hold 30–50 presentations and workshops for managers and executives each year. I am struck each time by the huge deficit of knowledge regarding what artificial intelligence actually is. This could be the world’s biggest leadership problem at the moment!

I’ve met hundreds of managers (and employees) who lack a very basic understanding of the various technologies typically included under the broad AI umbrella. They also lack a deeper understanding of the business potential the various technologies hold.

Without this understanding, it will be very difficult to ‘lead into the future’, because the future will heavily involve AI. This means leaders will need to be able to assess whether their organisation has the necessary AI expertise, and the infrastructure to make it possible. Everything from data quality to the right talent.

For example, do you have a programme or plan for how to train your entire organisation to understand the business advantages of implementing artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence to lead in the future?

Artificial intelligence may be artificial, but it’s also the technology that comes closest to mirroring how the human brain and intelligence work.
As the founder and head of an AI company, my colleagues and I spend each day trying to distil the human brain into formulas, and discussing the boundaries of AI technology. AI is still experimental, but it’s no longer the future. It’s very much the present!

In our organisation — as in other organisations where AI has become an integral part of daily work — it has big implications for the way we lead. Artificial intelligence can do so much more than the good old excel spreadsheet, that could quickly multiply and divide numbers. AI actually mirrors many of the human processes and methods that characterise our cognitive make up — including the way we lead.

Leadership has always been about making important and difficult decisions. Over the last few decades, in particular, there has been an increasing focus on data, facts and figures in these decision-making processes, and this is precisely where artificial intelligence is excelling right now.

Once you have implemented AI in your organisation in an intelligent way, you have a tool to:

· Collect, process and evaluate facts, data and information, and make informed decisions about a given matter, problem or potential on this basis — or let AI make the decision for you.

· Predict future events and outcomes, enabling you to create and develop strategies and show foresight, so these events are used to advantage rather than being a disadvantage.

Does this mean that leaders are on their way to obsolescence, as AI takes over and becomes the future leader?

Leadership in the future

Curiosity, emotional intelligence and empathy have been talked about as essential leadership qualities for decades. In my experience, however, the numbers and the tough decisions are always given more weight in the end than these otherwise popular characteristics of a good leader.

Paradoxically, however, artificial intelligence could provide a breakthrough for the human leader. As the data-based element of leadership becomes more automated and within everyone’s reach, it will become clearer which leaders are also strong in terms of ‘softer’ leadership skills such as listening, understanding, including and acknowledging.

In future, leadership will involve embracing AI progress, while also reassuring the team and equipping them with the right skills for the future. The focus will be on management boosting each employee’s belief in their own abilities, and developing these, and getting employees to understand their great importance to the organisation as a whole and its purpose.

This highlights the need for three leadership qualities that artificial intelligence will never be able to replace, which will become all the more important for leaders in the coming years and decades precisely for this reason:

· Better at listening. A recent US study found that the average manager only listens to an employee for 18 seconds before interrupting them. This is highly destructive for both morale and innovation. Leaders must learn to listen for the sake of listening, rather than in order to answer.

· A mindset that drives change. It has long been popular to talk about being ready for change, but this doesn’t make sense in the future. When you are ready, you are waiting for something to happen. Leaders must instead create change and think like entrepreneurs.

· Start with ‘why’. Developments in artificial intelligence could easily blur the clear picture of where the organisation is actually headed. It moves the focus from people to technology. The ability to formulate a strong ‘why’ will therefore be more important than ever.