Analytics and artificial intelligence have been much spoken of over the last few years, but there is an interesting area on which they are having an impact—leadership traits.
What we have valued in a potential leader has varied across the last two decades. Behaviours around entrepreneurship, ability to see the big vision and communicate it inspiringly, influencing the environment and other capabilities have been discussed. In times of opportunity, the ability to seize the moment and ramp up without sweating the small stuff is seen as important. Big picture thinking, making sense of strategy and environment, knowing what customers want—therein was the formula for a good leader who could help his or her company make an impact.
If we look at the head—heart—guts framework of leadership, machine intelligence is going to manage most of the "head" component far more efficiently than the human mind can.
A friend working in a retail organisation with a strong online presence recently told me an interesting story. Since the time the company was founded, a good part of their business reviews used to be spent on debating which KPIs (key performance indicators) they should track and measure. Depending on how each segment was faring on different parameters the discussants would heatedly extol the merits or demerits of selected metrics, and a good proportion of leadership mettle was focused on guiding the discussion to a productive outcome through showing insight on what customers actually wanted and which metrics were relevant. A couple of months ago she got her head of analytics to churn out from the millions of transactions which metrics actually drive sales. The reviews are now shorter and business leaders don't need to show superiority of thinking, since artificial intelligence is able to do that far better than them.
We hear of countless similar examples from other sectors, of how cognitive reapportionment between human and machine is taking place. What is this doing to leadership? If we look at the head—heart—guts framework of leadership, machine intelligence is going to manage most of the "head" component far more efficiently than the human mind can. Mental agility and comfort with ambiguity will still be relevant, but elements around non-cognition will start assuming far greater importance. And having experience of doing something will not mean that we can do it better, as the rate of change may mean we have to do it a different way each time.
So what will the essential components of successful leadership look like? I would think the "heart" and "guts" elements will come into much sharper focus than they are today. Let me talk about guts first, as that's usually easier to relate to in the context of leaders. The ability to make some sense of the chaos around and not get unduly ruffled, being able to stay the course and demonstrate courage in the face of difficulty and also taking "leaps of faith" when all the cognitive due diligence is done and dusted. The velocity of change and shortening of cycles in our business, political and social context will be harsh on those needing certainty as a pre-requisite to decision making. And given that risk management is going to continue to be emphasised by boards and regulators despite uncertainty, it only sharpens the focus on guts as an essential element for a leader.
The age of unprecedented automation and artificial intelligence is putting the focus of leadership on the basics... ultimately, be true to yourself and to others.
What about the heart? Volatile times and lack of certainty mean mistakes will be made not only at the top but at all levels. Hindsight will show the error of many decisions, and a leader with a strong heart is needed to empathize with and back teams at different levels. Imagine how powerful a cultural impact such a leader can have on his or her organisation. The fabric of entrepreneurship and thoughtful risk taking can be fuelled and become a significant cultural advantage. Further, the increasing complexity of large organisations has shown us that no leader can hope to have all the answers or expect to successfully govern through command and control. A leader with a strong heart can inspire and charge teams with a sense of meaning and pride in what they do. Scaling organisations and managing complexity across countries, product lines and regulations will require this kind of connect to be created at all levels.
So where does this take all our efforts to find and build leaders for our tomorrow? The heart and the guts can be developed to an extent with thoughtful approaches as long as there is a foundation of each within the person. However, at the core is a powerful leadership trait—that of authenticity, which cannot be taught. The age of unprecedented automation and artificial intelligence is putting the focus of leadership on the basics—care for and inspire your teams, have the courage to stand by what you believe in and stay the course, and ultimately, be true to yourself and to others.
* Some of the concepts in this article were informed by the book "Head, Heart and Guts: How the world's best companies develop complete leaders."