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Leading Off
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The rise of the machines has fascinated and terrified us for at least a century now. In fact, the word “robot” in its modern sense first entered written language in 1921. Today, with automation spreading into so many different aspects of our lives, some fret about robots taking over our jobs and eventually displacing humans entirely. But the preoccupation with job losses has obscured the kinder, gentler side of artificial intelligence—its ability to complement or even enhance human qualities such as empathy and humility, which can change the way leaders make decisions. This week, let’s explore the state of play of AI and how you might integrate it into leading better.
Reorient your thinking to create an AI-enabled mindset
Organizations that implement AI successfully don’t just behave differently—they also think differently. AI is etched into their collective mindset. Rather than just applying it opportunistically, they deeply internalize AI’s long-term benefits—collaboration, continuous learning, and end-to-end thinking. To achieve this, leaders must reorient their own styles of thinking and then move every mindset in the organization. This is no easy task, but one place to start is by taking the long view. Avoid focusing on near-term profit that may lead you to pursue often-unrelated use cases that offer quick and measurable financial benefit. Rather, zero in on your company’s multiple, an indicator of long-term ability to add value to the organization. Getting the C-suite to agree on this approach requires diplomacy and persuasiveness—qualities that leaders will need to cultivate as AI gains momentum.
That’s the percentage rise in hours that US and European workers will spend on “soft” skills—subjective qualities such as teamwork or flexibility—by the year 2055. By that time, as many as half of our current work activities have the potential to be automated, and more than half of the job activities that exist today will no longer be needed. As AI takes over many technical tasks, human-centric skills such as empathy, creativity, and agility will increasingly take center stage. Leaders will need to not only recognize and reward those skills but also practice them if they wish to make the most of AI implementations at their companies. According to a recent McKinsey survey, high performers on AI were much more likely than others to say that their AI initiatives had an engaged, knowledgeable, and highly collaborative champion in the C-suite.
“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”
So said the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Intelligent leaders know that doubt is a good thing. They understand the importance of balancing confidence with humility—an attribute that will be on the rise as AI transforms the nature of leadership. Expect soft qualities—humility, adaptability, vision, and engagement—to take precedence over formerly prized “hard” attributes such as deep domain expertise, decisiveness, and short-term task focus. Counterintuitively, AI enhances soft skills: it can help you lead with clarity, specificity, and creativity, since it filters out nonessential information and, surprisingly, can serve as a healing balm. And as new technologies spark debate over ethics and possible bias, authenticity, transparency, and accountability will remain critical leadership characteristics, whether in an AI environment or not.
Andrew McAfee
Today, we’re seeing the promise and potential of AI technologies as never before. AI-powered robots run retail warehouses. Utilities use AI and machine-learning models to predict electricity demand. And self-driving cars rely on AI-based systems to interpret the data streaming in from sensors and cameras. In this interview, Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and codirector of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, explains how leadership will change “in the face of these crazy, powerful technologies.” On the one hand, McAfee states, “deeply human skills” will become even more valuable—for example, articulating a vision that attracts customers, talent, and stakeholders. But one thing leaders may no longer have to worry about is the value of continuing to make tough calls, since, according to McAfee, machines do that better anyway. “Technology is better at human-judgment tasks than humans,” he says. “It’s the most unsettling by-product of the machine-learning revolution.”
Man versus machine
person with phone
Fear of robot takeovers has been around for decades, but in recent years the human-versus-machine debate has taken on a new urgency. In a wide-ranging survey of experts conducted by the Pew Research Center, respondents were asked whether the growing prevalence of AI and related technologies would make them better or worse off over the next ten years. Overall, 63 percent said people would be better off if AI were used to improve digital collaboration globally, become a values-based system focused on the common good, and—no surprise here—prioritize human capabilities and capacities.
Lead intelligently.
— Edited by Rama Ramaswami, a senior editor in McKinsey’s Stamford office, and Belinda Yu, an assistant managing editor in the Atlanta office
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