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Be better at being human: leadership in the digital age

In his 2021 BBC Reith Lectures, Professor Stuart Russell explored the impact of artificial intelligence on current and future generations. One of his conclusions was that in a world of machines, “we will need to become good at being human.”

As our world is reshaped by exponential digital development, Rachel Neaman argues that understanding the strengths and limitations of both technology and humanity is an essential part of effective leadership.

Ubiquitous and inexorable

It’s a truism that we now live in a connected world, but the sheer pervasiveness of technology, and its implications for business and society, cannot be overstated.

The operational impacts are well known. Process automation is everywhere, from supply chains to production lines through to sales and distribution. Customers’ expectations are driven by always-on connectedness and the personalisation (or appearance of it) that’s such a feature of the digital age.

These all have implications for business strategy, where process efficiencies may be a competitive advantage or, more frequently, a prerequisite for survival.

The impacts are also profound in the human sphere, where many jobs are being redefined or eliminated altogether. The need to retrain and reskill the workforce puts strategic and operational pressure on HR – and greater pressure on all senior leaders. The ability to adapt to new working practices, like remote and hybrid working, is not evenly distributed across the generations or job functions. Organisations need to be alert to how needs and expectations vary with age and career stage as well as role.

The top-table knowledge gap

If senior leaders at the Post Office had been more technically enlightened, they might not have wrongly prosecuted 736 of their staff based on information from their Horizon computer system.

If top banking executives had understood some of the maths that their quants used to evaluate risk, or had a handle on the financial instruments their ‘rocket scientists’ were developing, the 2008 global financial crisis might never have been triggered.

Of course it’s not for the senior leadership to understand all of the detail, but devolving too much responsibility to technology or to back-office staff can have severe consequences.

The causes of this knowledge gap are obvious: it’s hard to learn new and complex things, especially in specialist domains. And the implications of the digital revolution for business (as well as wider society) are often anxiety-inducing, making a ‘head in the sand’ approach very tempting.

Beware of magical thinking

Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. As each day brings further miraculous innovations, it can induce a naïve belief that technology is always the answer.

This is the flip-side of ‘head in the sand’ denial, and it can be equally risky. Putting too much trust in a black-box solution that you don’t really understand is an act of hope, not a strategy.

This puts pressure on business leaders to work at understanding enough to make informed decisions, or to acknowledge that they don’t have the knowledge and therefore need to delegate major pieces of strategic thinking to those that do. Learning totally new things and admitting to weakness are outside the comfort zone for many senior executives.

What it means for leadership

The first step is to take this seriously and recognise your blind-spots. Leaders need to acknowledge that digital transformation is as fundamental to business as the behaviour of financial markets or the demands of regulatory frameworks.

They need to appreciate the constantly changing risks and impacts of a digital world; and that means educating themselves and developing appropriate skills.

"Technology is already moving faster than anyone can keep up with."

The key to this is adopting a more flexible mindset. Most established businesses develop in a largely linear and incremental fashion, but adapting to technological disruption demands non-linear thinking.

Success will increasingly depend on how well you embrace the discomfort of not having the degree of control that you previously took for granted. This will only become more acute as the rate of change increases: technology is already moving faster than anyone can keep up with.

Humans should only do what only humans can do

Successful leaders will also need to identify which roles and tasks to entrust to people and which are better performed by an algorithm. They must also avoid the trap of treating people like bots and vice versa. Humans and machines have different but complementary skills; the best of both can only be an advance on the status quo.

Advances in machine learning have been dramatic, but general AI is still elusive and sentience may never be achieved – despite what one Google engineer recently claimed.

Humans still have a monopoly on judgement, empathy and critical thinking. Computers are great at performing prescribed functions at speed, repeatedly and with perfect accuracy but have no idea what it means for a business to be profitable or a customer to be happy.

This puts a premium on developing – and rewarding – those attributes that are uniquely human. Rather than automation throwing workers on the scrapheap, automation frees up workers – with the right training – to become even more human.

What’s required is for senior executives across the enterprise (not just in HR) to focus on harnessing the strengths of their people, and on mitigating the harms that digital transformation can inflict; to foster a culture in which everyone works at being a better human and is rewarded for being so.


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