May 11, 2024

Does human leadership matter more?

In this world of AI, is emotional intelligence the leadership differentiator?
With the rapid rise in the use of AI at home and in the workplace, is there still a place for emotional intelligence over artificial intelligence? How can leaders respond to AI? How can they become aware of AI’s potential and how best to capitalise on the opportunities that AI presents, without prioritising efficiency over customer connection? And without prioritising technology over their people?
AI is infiltrating and influencing everyday life; and its impact and reach for consumers, governments, organisations and workers is ever increasing.
So many of us have had personal experience of AI knowingly. Some not knowingly. We’ve asked Alexa to choose a playlist, Siri to navigate and set timers, watched family photos rotating on screen with joyful memories, maybe even asked ChatGPT a question?
And we’ve also all experienced the frustration of contacting a retailer, bank or utilities company, the uselessness of the chatbot sending you basic messages and endless links to a place of endless frustration. In our everyday experience, is AI really leading to improved customer service and enhanced product offerings? Or is it merely a cost effective technological approach to optimising operational efficiency at the expense of customer connection?
Given that ChatGPT only launched 18 months ago, generative AI has already come a long way. Every month sees the launch of new tools, rules or technological advancements. Some are calling AI the 4th Industrial Revolution. There’s fear, there’s sensationalism, there’s risk, yet clearly AI has proven to be good and has the potential for the greater good. 

AI is transforming organisations

AI certainly brings benefits to organisations; technologies such as machine learning and data analytics bring speed, efficiency, knowledge, insight. AI replaces tasks, particularly repetitive and time-consuming tasks, with increasing sophistication. Ethan Mollick, Associate Professor at Wharton University, predicts that:

"AI will outperform humans across a wide variety of tasks in the not too distant future.”

As a result, Mollick advises business leaders to build systems of control, leverage opportunities and manage the risk.

AI is changing the face of work as we know it; for the organisation, leaders, employees as well as the whole workforce ecosystem. AI supports, enables and disrupts people in their work. But while we make these gains in efficiency and productivity, are we prioritising efficiency over connection? 

“Let’s not confuse the means with the end. The means is the tech, the end is the people.”

I don’t pretend to know or understand all the ramifications of AI, but there are clear implications and challenges that executives and their boards need to understand and embrace if organisations are to survive and thrive in a technology-driven world. 

AI is transforming leadership

AI is more than just a technological tool. AI is an enabler and has the potential to transform leadership capability and organisational performance. As AI continues to evolve, its impact on strategic decision making and leadership effectiveness will further increase. Leaders who take time to understand and leverage AI will position their organisation for competitive advantage and growth.
Implementing AI to identify patterns and trends in large data sets and predict future scenarios quickly and accurately creates a paradigm shift in strategic business decision making and in identifying risks and opportunities. AI’s capacity to automate routine and repetitive tasks delivers significant enhancements to productivity and efficiency. Its ability to analyse individual customer behaviours to create personalised experiences and individualised learning pathways for employees could be game changing.
It’s a given that AI can transform tasks. However, business leaders have the ability to transform people, tasks and efficiency. Leveraging both artificial intelligence and emotional intelligence will secure business success. Ultimately, as AI automates tasks and processes, emotionally intelligent leadership will become the only thing that differentiates humans from the tech. 

Leaders be aware and beware: The ethics and risks of AI

For leaders, there are so many trade-offs involving AI; whether it’s time, cost, location, risk. There’s new thinking to be done on how AI is used by the organisation, the levels of accountability, who owns the errors when they’re made? The ethics we know about, the ethics we haven’t even considered yet. Leaders should be aware of the following risks and be prepared:

- Misleading information:  Web search is being reinvented. Google search is no longer the only way. We are operating in a new model of ChatGPT, AI assistants, chatbots and answer bots that trawl the web and retrieve relevant, contextualised content, immediately. But the resulting AI-generated information does not have the scrutiny of the human brain, nor does it filter inaccurate or misleading information. People are intuitive and inquisitive, leaders should therefore ensure that data is challenged and decisions are based on reliable and trusted data.

- Risk of bias:  Unilever Dove has built its brand on Real Beauty and has publicly committed to never use AI to represent real women in its adverts. Amazon reportedly discontinued its AI-based recruiting tool in 2018 when it was found to exhibit selection bias against women. Recent research from personal finance comparison site revealed a concerning bias embedded within AI language models like ChatGPT, whereby when prompted to illustrate individuals in high-powered roles, 99 percent of ChatGPT generated images depicted white men.

The implications suggest that integrating biased AI systems into the workplace could further impede the progress of women and minorities. So yes, there is bias, but as we do with humans, let’s introduce AI to new thinking, maybe even some DEI training?
- Reputational and legal risks:  Organisations that rely on generative AI models should consider the reputational and legal risks involved in unintentionally publishing biased, offensive or copyrighted content.

- Eliminating the digitally disadvantaged:  Leaders need to also think about the digitally disadvantaged. What assumptions are leaders and the organisation making about employees and consumers and what is the risk of biased data and samples?

- Ethics:  Leaders should consider ethical issues such as data privacy, potential bias in AI algorithms and the impact of AI on jobs.

As generative AI becomes increasingly, and seamlessly, incorporated into business, society and our personal lives, we can also expect a new regulatory climate to take shape. As organisations begin experimenting and creating value with AI tools, leaders should keep a close eye on the pulse of regulation and risk.

Who to trust: Human or machine?

As leaders, we all know the danger of relying on the data, we all know the dangers of relying on people telling us about issues. So to rely on a thumbs up, thumbs down, swipe left, swipe right approach, is a little artificial to say the least. There’s no one panacea for sure but as more tasks are automated and the use of the tech increases exponentially, we’re spiralling towards a world where leadership behaviours like empathy and emotional intelligence become the only thing that matters.

Like any new innovation, there will be flaws. But the human model is also flawed. Both AI and humans can hallucinate, make up facts or arrive at inappropriate conclusions based on blind trust or inaccurate data or both. Risks such as people not speaking up in the face of crisis or even danger to life reminds us that human intelligence can also fail.

Research by the Stern School of Business on 'Organisational Silence' found that 85% of employees said they do not share their concerns, issues or thoughts at work. And only 15% of the employees voiced their thoughts and feelings. If our operating premise is that someone will say something, someone will tell us if there is an issue or it isn't safe, then based on those numbers, our operating premise is unsafe in itself.

So who to trust? Several studies have explored people's preferences regarding receiving medical advice from humans versus robots. A study published in the International Journal of Social Robotics in 2018 found that participants perceived human advice to be more trustworthy and credible compared to robot advice. However, a year later, in a study published in the Journal of Health Communication in 2019, participants expressed concerns about the potential for human error in medical advice and saw robots as potentially more reliable sources of information.

Given credibility and reliability are fundamental to both trust and leadership, leaders need to be increasingly aware of the need to strike a balance between human intelligence and artificial intelligence in their business decisions.

My recommendations for leaders embracing AI 

The benefits of AI in terms of enhanced information, knowledge, efficiency are apparent. But leaders often fear AI as ‘the unknown’, an insurmountable challenge that’s best left to the ‘techies’. That’s commercially naïve, as some have found to their cost.
AI is not an IT issue, it’s a business priority. Leaders need to embrace the opportunities that AI presents, build AI literacy for themselves and across the organisation and understand its limitations.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT advises executives to: 

“Make technology-related discomfort a habit.”

Get comfortable with the uncomfortable; reframe and embrace the discomfort around AI to create efficiency, opportunity and value growth.

My recommendations for leaders are to:

1. Learn for you:  Great leadership requires a commitment to ongoing development and continual learning. Technology and AI is increasing at a phenomenal rate. Leaders need to get on board, embrace AI, learn about the different AI technologies available and understand the possibilities. Seeking the discomfort of learning about AI and making technology-related learning a habit is a leadership differentiator. Executives can develop AI literacy by holding regular sessions with AI experts in the organisation, attending educational technology events designed for executives and allocating time for self-directed AI learning.
2. Drive your collective learning:  Ensure AI is on the Board agenda. Executives need AI literacy to stay ahead and future proof the business. Drive executive learning around AI, how AI may impact each business function and collectively prepare for the anticipated and unexpected effects of AI. To be able to make strategic decisions on how the organisation can capitalise on AI and assess strategic risks, all executives require greater AI literacy.
3. Anticipate the ‘might’:  Prepare for the unexpected impacts that AI may have on your people and the organisation, including potential legal and ethical risks. Identify how other players in your industry are embracing the opportunities and challenges of AI and learn from widely known and the not so widely known AI successes and failures.
The leadership challenge of AI is vast but the rewards for embracing AI are immense. 

Human leadership matters 

In an age of artificial intelligence, will human leadership and emotional intelligence still matter? I would argue that as technology does more and more, we are spiralling towards a world where behaviours like emotional intelligence and human empathy become the only thing that matters.
The Capgemini Research Institute found that an organisation’s need for the entire spectrum of emotional intelligence might become up to six times greater as routine tasks are automated, leaving only the more emotionally challenging jobs for human workers.
Today, as the AI journey truly takes off, building an empathic organisation will begin to unlock the full spectrum of emotionally intelligent behaviours that are required to sit alongside AI and automation if an organisation is to succeed.
Investment in automation is a given. The differentiator is now about the need to invest in emotionally intelligent leadership, more than ever before. For good ideas and true innovation, executives must create an environment that encourages healthy debate and dissenting viewpoints. Disagreeing, yet not disconnecting.

What’s your responsibility as a leader?

Ultimately, what does AI mean for leaders today? The technology is a given; artificial intelligence will take over tasks and perform routine, process and analysis effectively and accurately. But in terms of emotional intelligence, intuition and inspiration, the differential is in human intelligence adding value that will always override AI. If we, as leaders, understand and embrace AI as a tool to aid efficiency, we can capitalise on AI to achieve transformation and competitive advantage.
It’s about task versus transformation; automated efficiency versus human leadership; artificial versus emotional intelligence; technology versus people.
What organisations need now is people that transform technology, and leaders that transform people.  Human intelligence is the differentiator. The overarching emotional aspects will always reside with humans.

In this age of AI, does human leadership matter more? I would argue yes, more than ever.