Artificial Intelligence Leadership is here already…

The last year or so has been awash with stories of jobs being automated and the robots taking over.  What began with blue collar jobs is now spreading to white collar jobs, with few professions (and certainly not leadership) apparently safe from the robot invasion.  Undoubtedly this has been fuelled by stories such as the AI tool developed by marketing agency McCann Japan to input into their creative projects.

These kind of stories undoubtedly have a grain of truth in them, and AI will surely play a growing role as a decision support tool in a great many ways, but these stories also prompted me to think about exactly what leadership is all about.

It reminded me of my first forays into leadership in my early 20s.  It was a time when I thought the leader needed to be perfect, and that anything less would render my attempts to lead by example a miserable failure.  The idea of being a ‘human’ leader, complete with flaws and blind spots was anathema.

Human leadership

I fell into the trap of trying to be a ‘heroic leader’, putting in intense effort and long hours because I thought that was what was expected of me.  It was almost a robotic form of leadership that was neither very effective or particularly what my team wanted from me.  That need to stay true to our human roots was certainly true 20 years ago, but probably even more so today with the array of digital tools we have at our disposal.  They can be a great help, but they can also dehumanise a lot of the work we do.

Attempting to be ‘perfect’ has a number of flaws.  For instance, it’s largely impossible to be perfect, and therefore in your attempts to be perfect you will probably lower expectations significantly in order to fulfil your own criteria.  No one person will know everything, for example, but if you insist on being the ‘smartest person in the room’, then you will often resort to dumbing down your team in order for that myth to persist.

Fulfilling your desire to be perfect will also probably create a level of self-confidence that will diminish creativity and collaboration in your team.  A study from a few years ago highlighted how domineering leaders prevent innovation among their teams, as they are so enthralled with the sound of their own voice that few others get a look in.  As you can imagine, this has a crippling effect on innovation as group-think flourish in a culture of equality where ideas are welcomed from all corners.

With leaders also setting a strong example for their team, the ‘heroic’ hours many put in can set an incredibly unhealthy example to their team.  There are countless studies highlighting the value of good work/life balance, both in terms of the productivity of employees but also in their general happiness and engagement levels.  You may think you’re setting a great example by putting in marathon shifts, but the reality is quite the opposite.

Being authentic

Think of the flipside, of how you can be more authentic and real when you engage with your team.  Your team want to connect with you, and to do that they have to relate to you, so showing your human side can be hugely powerful.

It doesn’t have to be as extreme as showing vulnerability, which some may feel is way outside their comfort zone.  Even showing ‘normality’ can be very impactful and strengthen the  extent to which people will follow you as a leader.

We delivered a roadshow of events for a client recently, one of the topics was around using the power of the mind to respond to, adapt and embrace change which in their situation had arisen through a merger of two organisations.  Rather than the Executive team delivering formal presentations as part of the event, we asked them to share a personal story of where they had used the power of their mind and overcome a self-limiting beliefs in order to embrace a change or take on a challenge which at the time they felt was impossible.  The stories shared by the Executives ranged from overcoming organisational service challenges which had never been solved in their industry before, through to personal stories of dealing with fears of horse riding, public speaking and exercising.

Whilst some of the Executive were nervous about telling their story and the ‘disclosure’ at the beginning of the roadshow, they quickly realised how much of an impact this personal story telling really was.  Some of the comments made after the events included:

“The enthusiasm was fantastic and lovely to listen to stories from the Executive Team.  It made me feel there’s nothing stopping me from achieving a goal providing the determination is there.”

“I’m feeling really inspired by your (Executive) story – thank you for sharing.  We’ve seen the glimmer that the Executive are not perfect, and that they really are human beings”

“I didn’t quite realise the power of the Executive Team being able to share some self-limiting beliefs”

As Alexander Pope famously said, “to err is human, to forgive, divine,” and this is a good mantra to remember if you want to be an innovative leader, because not only will mistakes and failures happen, but if you’re striving to be innovative then you should be encouraging them.  If you’re not making mistakes then you’re not pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

So stop striving for perfection, because not only is it impossible, it’s also positively damaging the abilities of yourself as a ‘human’ leader, and your team to create,  innovate and deliver.