What role for leadership in our AI-fuelled world?

There can be little doubt that we’re entering a new age of AI.

When ChatGPT burst onto the scene at the end of 2022, the hysteria it generated brought to mind the famous quote by the late Arthur C Clarke, co-writer of the screen play for 2001 A Space Odyssey: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. All of a sudden the prospect of machines taking over the world, mass job losses and a dystopian future loom large in the public discourse.

There’s no doubt that AI has taken a massive step forward with the Large Language Model (LLM) technology powering services like ChatGPT. AI is now ‘good enough’ at mimicking qualities that have previously been attributed only to humans, such as creativity, reasoning and empathy, and this makes it capable of replacing some skills that were previously beyond the reach of automation. And this encompasses many job categories.

The impact of this progress means there will undoubtedly be significant changes in many businesses.

  • Some job roles will disappear, some will change significantly and others will be created.
  • Value propositions will reflect the value AI delivers alongside human contributors.
  • Business models will change as the sources of value creation and consumption shift and established industry value chains are redesigned.

This will be scary for many people – change is never easy. It implies uncertainty and risk of failure and most of us, whether individuals or businesses, don’t like these things – we are creatures of habit. Business leaders would be forgiven for going into survival mode: forget the so called ‘nice to haves’ around our people; focus on staying in business.

But this would be a great mistake.

Adaptability will be the defining capability for business

No one knows what will come next and the ability to ride the waves of technology-led change and thrive in conditions of uncertainty is what will separate the winners and losers. It’s natural selection at work in the world of business.

But here’s the rub: to be adaptable you need an innovation advantage, and you can’t achieve that without an inspiration advantage. To quote Professor Gary Hamel: “Everything hinges ultimately on willing, enthusiastic, joyful engagement”. So, in an ironic paradox, to ride the waves of change that AI is driving, it’s more important than ever to focus on people. And this means strong leadership.

Why is leadership so important?

It’s a fact that people work at their best when they feel safe. Recall the well-documented experiment that Google ran a few years ago, when they conducted 200+ interviews with employees and looked at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. They were confident they would find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team.

What they actually found is that who is on a team matters far less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their respective contributions. The study found that a psychologically safe environment was far and away the most important team dynamic to deliver fast change and innovation.

But this is just the start of the value of good leadership, the purpose of which is to create the conditions for people to be their best and excel, both individually and collectively. The discipline of leadership speaks perfectly to creating the conditions any business needs to thrive in times of exponential change.

So you can think of leadership as being an essential capability required to thrive in the highly turbulent, AI-fuelled world we now inhabit.

The AI leadership playbook

Alongside psychological safety, leaders need to set a clear and compelling vision around which everyone can rally, empowering front-line workers to take measured risks and drive innovation around AI. This means encouraging experimentation and curiosity, treating failure as a learning opportunity, removing hierarchy and replacing it with agile skills-based collaboration.

Leadership can become a great weapon in the face of unpredictable change. The fact is that we can’t stop change and its disruptive effects. The laws of technological innovation mean that change will only get faster as time goes on because it’s an exponential curve.

So, in this sense, ChatGPT is just the start. The real lesson is that it’s a portent of what is to follow, not an end-game itself, and we can already see this with the myriad of even more powerful AI models and services that have already followed since its launch, including GPT-4, AutoGTPT and others.

It’s hardly surprising that many industry leaders are calling for a moratorium on AI development: even the people creating the tech have been surprised by how far it’s come in just a few short months and what it can do.

So, as a business leader, when you’re contemplating the impact of all of this new technology on your business, don’t forget that good leadership is a critical ingredient of the answer. It will keep you people focused on the task in hand, whatever the technology throws at them. And it’s impossible to overstate the value this can deliver.

(This article was written solely by a human, no AI involved).

Martin Ward

Post by Martin Ward

Partner at Waypoint Partners

© Waypoint Partners LTD 2024