The Future of Leadership, Part 5: AI – Curse or Blessing?

This is part of a series about where the future of leadership may be heading.

In the past year, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has come into its own, and now we’re racing at breakneck speed to determine what purposes it might serve. an artistic representation of the uncertainty of an AI future: white binary code on a black background, receding into darkness.

This has enormous potential impacts for the future of leadership.

“…as with all new tools, society has to figure out which tasks AI is best for, and how to use it without breaking things.” [1]

AI has the capability to be both a curse and a blessing if we’re not paying attention as it unfolds.

How may AI become a curse?  As the old saying goes, “Let me count the ways.”

  • We might become lazy and default to allowing AI to perform leadership tasks we should be doing face to face. For example, we can use AI to teach skills such as counseling or listening.  Particularly with the latter, we’d end up with more poor listeners than we already have – in large part because AI can mimic voices, but not body language.
    (For another set of examples, take e-commerce giant Amazon: it has gotten press for using AI to identify damaged packages, but also faced negative press for using algorithm-based automation to fire warehouse employees.)
  • We might use AI as a crutch for relationship problem-solving. Rather than investigate when someone is not performing as well as we think they should be, we might go to a generative AI source (such as ChatGPT) and ask it what we should do.  We then could end up with an approach that is a complete mismatch with the person we’re trying to influence.

Technology writer and critic Mark Hurst puts it this way:

Play-Doh is a helpful way to think about AI generators. You may have used a toy extruder: you put a bunch of Play-Doh inside and then squeeeeeze, and out it comes in gloppy, mushed-up tubes… ChatGPT is doing this to text content on the internet… [it] hoovered up huge bodies of text online like Wikipedia, as well as books, articles, and other sources… When you ask ChatGPT a question, it squeeeeezes all of that text together and plops out an answer, word by word, using its pattern-matching algorithm. Who knows what sources contributed to the answer, or what the algorithm was doing, or even whether the answer is accurate: it’s all just an extruded glop of text.” [2]

Consolidation of all that data could be helpful, but we have to remember that it is just that – a consolidation of existing sources.

So, how could we use AI as a leadership blessing instead?

  • AI could free up some valuable time during the workday, so we can focus on the most important aspect of leadership – interacting with people. There are a multitude of routine administrative tasks AI may be able to perform, such as inventory control or payroll entries (and I’m sure you can think of many others).  But we still have to put some human energy into this division of labor — and remember that fact checking is essential, or we’ll be back to AI being a curse.
  • We could learn to use AI as an avenue for information, but not the source of information. When we’re examining courses of action for a project, we can use AI to correlate data or conduct a risk assessment. They can be backed up by information from team members with real-world knowledge and experience.  These capabilities will help us make more informed decisions – and everyone we lead will benefit from that more thoughtful process.

If we use AI to supplement human leadership, we may benefit. If we use AI to replace human leadership, we will likely all be worse off. It is up to us as leaders to remember that “human element.”

Enjoy the journey!

[1] Sean Captain as quoted in his article “25 Questions to Ask Yourself About AI,” in The Wall Street Journal (April 12, 2023).

[2] Mark Hurst, “AI is Creating the Play-Doh Internet,” Creative Good (February 10, 2023).

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