The Demands of Good Leadership in the Age of AI
During a recent visit to a “big box” store (insert big shudder here as I prefer to do all my shopping online), I noticed that not only had many of the cashiers been replaced by a sprawling plaza of check out kiosks, but also how few sales and service employees appeared to be on the sales floor. As customers struggled to complete their purchases at the self-serve kiosks, I also observed a line up at each of the handful of employees who were working the floor. Frustrated, several customers wandered aimlessly around the store in search of a person who could help them. When a young clerk entered from the back, he quickly had a throng of people at him, and became clearly overwhelmed by the flood of irritated shoppers and unable to curb the rising tide of discontent. I saw a manager walk by and at no time did I witness a leader stepping into a deteriorating situation to offer triage and guidance. I can’t imagine how many of the customers I saw that morning took their business elsewhere.
A 2018 IBM study concluded that over the next three years 120 million workers from the world’s 12 largest economies may experience significant retraining because of the proliferation of intelligent/AI-enabled automation.1 The same study determined that 60 million workers in the same economies, nearly 3.4% of the workforce, would be redeployed or laid off over the same time period because of AI.2 While it’s clear that many hourly positions may be filled by AI technologies in the coming decades, I’ve wondered how leadership will be impacted by the rise of all things digital. Will there be a need for strategic planning, managing, talent development and all those other skills embedded in strong “human” leadership, or will leadership be outsourced to AI like so many other facets of business? My response to my own question is rooted in a simple understanding of leadership. Leadership requires interpersonal acumen, multidimensional knowledge, and a diverse skill set. While AI can duplicate the latter two facets of leadership, interpersonal acumen is the exclusive domain of people.
Where Technology Falls Short
While technology can streamline processes, increase process efficiency, and reduce costs, it cannot understand the motivations, challenges, strengths, and weaknesses of the members of the team. For example, when an employee’s work is impacted by a death or health crisis, the leader must balance the demands of business with the expectation of empathy. Can technology engage in the hard work of consoling a worker in trouble? Can it muster the team to take on more tasks to fill the gaps created by the one who must step away to take care of health or family? Can technology “work the magic” of helping under-performing team members capture their full potential? And what about the inevitable crisis on the sales floor or down at the shipping dock? When the proverbial “s**t hits the fan,” someone must step up and be accountable – they must lead. Indeed, the need for strong leadership will endure even as the mechanics of business undergo a massive change. However, the shape of leadership may be encountering its own change right now. It appears that a rapidly evolving AI landscape demands human leadership versed in the soft skills that motivate, guide, and support the well-being of workers.
As technology continues to broaden its integration into the processes that drive our businesses, leadership will still be tasked with setting the vision and building the nimble team that services the vision. In the coming decades, leadership training will include larger servings of organizational psychology than the current training approaches, giving leaders stronger skills for the important work of human management and development. In work environments that will be increasingly AI driven, leadership will be tasked with cultivating relationships – esprit de corps – that keeps the team connected while more and more machines “do the work.” Leaders will also serve as interpreters and care providers who help their employees accept change and envision how their gifts and energies are carried into the new and emerging workplace models. In the domain of continuing education, for instance, leaders will be tasked with articulating why consistent skills development is a priority, not just an option, in the modern workspace. As the IBM study affirms, we must embrace the reality that lifelong learning is here to stay.
The tasks of leadership in the AI era may change, but the necessity of leaders remains. While machines may do more of the work, informed workers will still need to ensure the machines are working appropriately. Leaders will inspire and equip those who manage the machinery. Leadership is one of the skills that is here to stay.