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Part 3: The Evolving Role of Leadership in the Age of AI

Leaders face the challenge of integrating AI effectively into their organisations. This requires a clear understanding of where AI can add value and where human expertise remains irreplaceable. How should leaders approach this task to make sure they get the balance right?

The answer lies in taking a responsible approach to AI use. With increasing AI adoption, leaders must prioritise responsible use. This requires a deeper understanding of AI and data science to avoid being misguided by market-driven hype or misled by the limitations of the technology.

In this third part of our 3-part series on the impact of AI on the past, present, and future of leadership, we explore how AI necessitates a shift in leadership focus. While traditional hard skills may be more aptly delivered through increasingly sophisticated AI capabilities, soft skills are emerging as the new cornerstone of effective leadership. Four key leadership traits essential for the AI age are identified and discussed.

Leaders should be reassured that AI is not revolutionising leadership entirely, but rather shifting the focus. Leaders must learn to harness AI responsibly and cultivate soft skills like humility, adaptability, and vision to thrive in this dynamic landscape.

How to be Human

The rise of AI presents a double-edged sword for leadership. On one hand, it renders many traditional hard skills, once the cornerstone of leadership, increasingly obsolete. On the other hand, it elevates the importance of soft skills, making them the new cornerstone of effective leadership in this new era.

In this context, the rapid pace of change driven by AI necessitates a re-evaluation of what constitutes effective leadership in this new era. One key strand of this work centres on the role of Emotional intelligence (EI) in leadership. EI refers to the ability to recognise, understand, and manage both one’s own emotions and the emotions of others effectively. It encompasses skills such as empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and relationship management. Individuals with high emotional intelligence can navigate social interactions more adeptly, handle conflicts constructively, and maintain healthier relationships. Essentially, EI involves the capacity to perceive and interpret emotions accurately, to use emotions to facilitate thinking, and to regulate emotions in oneself and others.

When considering the relationship between EI and AI, it’s important to understand that AI typically lacks emotional intelligence as it is traditionally conceived. AI systems, while capable of processing vast amounts of data and performing complex tasks, do not contain the nuanced understanding and emotional capabilities inherent in human intelligence. For instance, much of the role of leaders involves working with teams to bring out the best from individuals, negotiate amongst multiple strongly held opinions, bring consensus across divergent viewpoints, and so on. Little offered in today’s AI systems address these concerns. Similarly, in complex decision-making contexts, who would argue that frequently the choices made and actions taken are as much driven by the emotional context as they are based on rational responses to data?

Studies by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and his colleagues support these ideas. They concluded that while traditional qualities like deep domain expertise, decisiveness, and a focus on short-term tasks are becoming less crucial, a new set of competencies is emerging to empower agile leadership.

They identified four key leadership traits that they see as essential for the AI age:

  • Humility: The ability to acknowledge one’s knowledge gaps and actively seek input from diverse sources, both within and outside the organisation. This fosters a culture of learning and embraces the valuable contributions of individuals regardless of their hierarchical position. Companies embracing a more diverse culture and engaging in reverse mentoring programs exemplify this approach.
  • Adaptability: The willingness to embrace new ideas, adjust existing strategies, and communicate these changes effectively to stakeholders. Adaptable leaders view changing their mind as a strength that enhances decision-making and allows them to learn from challenges. The use of more agile management structures that prioritise meritocracy and adhocracy are important illustrations of this management style.
  • Vision: Providing a clear and compelling vision becomes even more critical as rapid change creates uncertainty among teams. Leaders with a strong vision can effectively communicate the organisation’s direction and purpose, guiding necessary transformations and inspiring long-term commitment. Making this vision actionable through schemes such as the use of “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs) is a common response.
  • Engagement: Remaining constantly engaged with the surrounding environment allows leaders to identify and respond to both threats and opportunities. This can involve utilising digital tools like Slack or Basecamp, using social intranets, and issuing employee surveys to gather insights and maintain team engagement, especially during challenging periods.

Consequently, while leadership in the age of AI isn’t entirely revolutionised, there is a crucial shift. Hard skills are increasingly surpassed by smart machines, highlighting the significance of soft skills. Timeless traits like integrity and emotional intelligence remain essential, but leaders must also cultivate humility, adaptability, unwavering vision, and constant engagement to thrive in this dynamic landscape.

The Leaders Role in Responsible AI

Furthermore, with increasing adoption of AI, one of the most important and underplayed roles for leaders is to increase their understanding of how to use it responsibly. The powerful capabilities that AI now provides can result in leaders being misguided or misled if it is used inappropriately. For leaders in the digital age, a new kind of knowledge is required to be able to use AI appropriately, confidently, and effectively. Unfortunately, too many of today’s leaders lack basic skills and understanding of the implications of living in an age of AI to ensure it is being used responsibly. Underlying this challenge is often a poor understanding in leaders and decision makers of even the most fundamental concepts of AI and data science.

Consequently, many people in key leadership positions are making business and life-changing decision about AI systems deployment with little meaningful understanding of what’s inside the “AI black box”. For instance, consider how AI uses data to make predictions. While leaders look to make use of AI to offer insights and accelerate decision making, a deeper scrutiny of AI’s use of data for prediction exposes several important principles that must be recognised by anyone involved with the responsible use of AI:  

Taking the Next Steps in AI Leadership

The future of leadership lies not in the replacement of human leaders by AI, but in the creation of a collaborative partnership between humans and machines. In this future, human leaders will leverage AI’s strengths in data analysis and automation while focusing on their own unique skillsets: strategic thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, and empathy.

This requires leaders to develop new skillsets, including:

  • AI literacy: Understanding the capabilities and limitations of AI to leverage it effectively and use it responsibly.
  • Data-driven decision-making: Utilising AI insights to inform decision-making while applying critical judgment and ethical considerations.
  • Change management: Leading organisations through the transition to an AI-powered future, including mitigating potential disruptions to the workforce.
  • Building human-machine partnerships: Fostering collaboration and trust between human and AI co-workers.

The impact of AI on leadership is undeniable. However, rather than fearing obsolescence, leaders have the opportunity to embrace AI as a powerful tool, allowing them to focus on their core strengths and guide their organisations towards a successful future. While AI automates tasks and analyses vast datasets, the human touch remains irreplaceable. Leaders must adapt and leverage AI’s capabilities to augment their strengths and navigate the complexities of the future. By fostering a symbiotic relationship with AI, human leaders can navigate the complexities of the coming era and continue to be the driving force behind organisational success.

Key Lessons for Leaders

Digital leaders must approach the use of AI with a responsible mindset, increasing their understanding of its capabilities and limitations to ensure its effective and ethical use. As AI adoption increases, leaders must prioritise AI literacy, data-driven decision-making, change management, and building human-machine partnerships to navigate the dynamic landscape of the future successfully.

AI can enhance leadership if responsibly applied:

  • Place a focus on improving your soft skills like humility, adaptability, and vision as these are crucial for success in the AI age.
  • Take the time to learn about the strengths and limitations of the Ai capabilities being offered today to ensure that you understand how to use AI responsibly and ethically.
  • Develop the AI literacy and data-driven decision-making skills across the organisation.

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