Will AI spare leadership?

12 Apr 2018 | LinkedIn article

First, the good news: your new CEO is selfless and honest, has not gone power-crazy, and is not surrounded by political sycophants.

Your new CEO is data hungry, reads and responds to every email within the hour, and always asks for input from across the business. Your new CEO encourages you to play to your strengths, and learn by experimenting without fearing punishment. Your new CEO is remarkably good at detecting your mood from your emails, your tone of voice, and your body language.

Your new CEO knows everyone’s name – not just employees but also their extended families. Your new CEO sends cards on your birthday, and never books you in for work on your holiday schedule. Your new CEO is fluent in every language in the world.

Your new CEO is a machine.

Wait, maybe that’s all good news.

The next 10 years of technological innovation will be defined by the development and implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) led by the big tech players Google, Amazon, Apple, IBM, Facebook and Microsoft. AI can automate many activities previously delivered by humans, especially scale processing, with the benefits of speed and quality without boring to death humans that previously held those jobs. AI is being adopted by 20% of AI-aware executives in a core business functions (McKinsey Global Institute) and 75% of executives say AI will be actively implemented in their organisation over the next three years (Economist Intelligence Unit). Adoption appears to be fastest moving in the financial services, automotive and technology sectors.

As the invention of trucks and cars revolutionized shipping and movement, AI will revolutionise how we make decisions and interact. As machine learning software models the human brain with networks of artificial neurons processing input data, rules-based robotics will become ‘so early-millennium’. Machines will understand, plan, communicate and develop through self-learning.


Leadership: from MBA learning to machine learning

As a species, we were at first flummoxed when machine learning allowed computers to beat human chess champions, and then go champions – using analytics and logical jumps we previously thought were impossible for computers. Will AI similarly learn communication? Can AI learn to be a great leader?

It is unlikely that leadership will be spared the impact of AI. In their Harvard Business Review article, Chamorro-Premuzic, Wade & Jordan (2018) comforted CEOs by arguing that AI will not replace them (As AI Makes More Decisions, the Nature of Leadership Will Change). Instead, they claim, AI will increase the value of soft skills such as communication, humility, adaptability, vision and engagement.

It’s hard to imagine a CEO with an MBA from every business school in the world, that has attended every executive program. Imagine when your CEO possesses PhD-level awareness of business, strategy, behavioural psychology, economics, finance, law, and marketing. When your CEO not only has also read every business book, academic paper and CEO interview ever written, but also can combine the models with the most current events. Imagine an AI CEO that makes quick, rational decisions without bias, ego or emotion. Your new AI CEO is trustworthy, incredibly focused and infinitely resilient, but avoids sunk costs and will only move forward with the right plan for the conditions and environment.

Your AI CEO has internalised a valid model about work: that great output comes from engaged employees who care about what they do. So it has set up the structural conditions of work to ignite the seeking systems of employees – to trigger the human emotions of excitement and curiosity. For example, to reward learning and agility, the AI CEO set up metrics and incentives that encourage employees to experiment and try new things. Working with your AI CEO makes you feel more human – more alive – than ever.

Your AI CEO is not threatened when you flex and stretch your formal roles to play to your strengths and invest in getting better. This makes your work feel more like ‘real life’ instead of a commute to the weekend.

Your AI CEO structured your job so that you experience – first hand – the impact of your work, on an ongoing basis. As an astute game theorist, an AI CEO would know that over the long run, these investments pay off far more than trying to script and control workers’ behaviors, and cutting costs to find short-term efficiencies. Paradoxically, your AI CEO creates an organization that is remarkably human-centered, where people love to work and people love to shop.


Can humans be led by an AI CEO?

There are many benefits to an AI CEO. It is strong in the ‘hard’ elements of leadership such as domain knowledge, cognitive ability, quick decision making and market led strategic insight. It also is strong in the ‘soft’ elements of leadership such as being trustworthy, transparent, selfless, and in-tune with employees’ needs. AI and machine learning will undoubtedly have a place in leadership – but may go no further than simply having a seat on the board to guide decision making, and help us know when we are on the right path.

Would you want your CEO to be AI? Or, do we actually prefer CEOs to have human emotions, flaws, and blind spots? Do we want our CEOs to be mirrors of ourselves: making mistakes, being plagued by ego concerns and having bad days? Many employees today feel little connection with their CEOs, or even dislike them. Do we prefer the downsides of human weaknesses compared to the AI alternative?


Written with Mark Humphries (non-executive director/senior advisor/operating partner).

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