The skills leaders need to survive in the age of AI

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Business leaders are doing more to understand artificial intelligence (AI) and how to use it strategically. In the last 12 months, between one-half and two-thirds of leaders said they’ve improved their understanding of AI to a greater extent. And while there’s certainly a need for leaders to develop a more technical understanding of AI, there are also interpersonal and soft skills which leaders must nurture to thrive in the age of AI. 

According to an Accenture survey, managers spend approximately 54% of their time on administrative tasks, such as scheduling and coordinating. But as AI becomes increasingly capable of performing these tasks, leaders are able to redirect their attention to more complex, higher-level responsibilities, such as employee development and innovative thinking. These tasks, however, require a shift in the skills needed to future-proof their leadership roles as well as their workforces. 

Here’s a look at the skills leaders should focus on to prepare their organizations for a future augmented by AI.

Critical and creative thinking

While AI may be able to gather and analyze data faster than a team of employees, human critical thinking is still fundamental for business success. Critical thinking is a soft skill that uses knowledge, facts, and data for strategic problem solving and decision-making. It involves logical reasoning as well as creativity – skills that AI cannot perform entirely alone yet because business scenarios or tasks are often distinct and can evolve over time. AI enables organizational efficiency and productivity, but it’s critical thinking and creativity that help leaders develop innovative business ideas and solutions. 

Business leaders must not only possess strong critical and creative thinking skills, but they should also be able to identify employees with similar skill sets. As AI takes over the mundane day-to-day tasks, employees with strong critical thinking skills are instrumental because they are better-positioned to transition into new roles that require more human involvement.

One of the best ways for leaders to develop critical and creative thinking skills -- and to assess which employees have these skills -- is with critical thinking assessments. These assessments consist of a series of online exercises that can identify and help improve specific weaknesses. These assessments can even be used during the recruitment process to uncover critical thinkers and evaluate how candidates may be able to help the organization in a meaningful way.

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Emotional intelligence and empathy

Technology companies are working hard to develop “emotional artificial intelligence,” or machines that are capable of measuring the emotional impact of their products or services. This is often achieved by recognizing facial movements, among other things. Still, machines cannot empathize or recognize human emotions beyond the surface level. In other words, they lack the emotional intelligence that only humans currently possess. 

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and handle the emotions of oneself and others. This is a highly valuable soft skill for anyone in a leadership role because it helps individuals identify, assess, and manage their emotions in a way that creates a positive impact. In other words, it helps individuals interact with others in the most beneficial and appropriate way. According to Bill Mark, President of Information and Computing Services at SRI International, whose AI team invented Siri, “We don't understand all that much about emotions to begin with, and we're very far from having computers that really understand that. I think we're even farther away from achieving artificial empathy.”

In the current age of AI, the ability to have empathy can help leaders establish trust and build positive relationships. A study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership surveyed more than 6,000 leaders and found that empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers that showed greater empathy toward their employees were viewed as better performers overall. 

When leaders are able to spend less time on gathering and analyzing data -- tasks that can be replaced with AI -- they can spend more time investing in their emotional intelligence and how they can better manage, influence, and relate to others. Leaders can seek expert advice in the form of workshops or courses on emotional intelligence, but should also keep in mind that empathy isn’t something that can be developed overnight. The pathway to becoming a more empathetic leader often starts with being a better listener and trying to see things from the point of view of others first. 

Ethical judgment

Conversations surrounding AI are shifting from how the technology can be used to how the technology should be used. There is a large gap between the rate that AI technology is developing and the rate that regulations are keeping up. Therefore, business leaders must take it upon themselves to monitor the ethical impacts of AI technology on their workplace, customers, and reputation. While 32% of organizations in a Deloitte survey of 1,500 U.S. executives ranked ethical issues as one of the top three risks and priorities of AI, few leaders have yet to outline specific approaches to deal with an ethical AI dilemma.

There is still a need for a humanistic approach and human judgment when it comes to executive decision-making. AI may be able to produce specific cost-saving recommendations or tactics, but leaders will still need to decide whether or not those options align with the company’s values, goals, and mission. The data is important, but it doesn’t always reveal the whole story. 

Today’s leaders must focus not only on compliance but also on building a culture of “doing the right thing” while waiting for regulators to catch up. 

Today, many corporations, such as Microsoft, Google, and Farmers Insurance, are establishing AI ethics frameworks and councils to oversee the governance of their AI applications and products. These initiatives often involve senior leaders as well as outside ethics advisory firms to help them address both business concerns and new ways to deploy AI both effectively and ethically. 

At the very least, business leaders should consider developing a set of risk management guidelines to help their teams address transparency, interpretability, and any risks of algorithmic bias before deploying AI projects.

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The leadership skills of the future

AI technology is progressing rapidly across all industries and causing significant shifts in long-standing job roles. There is a real need for leaders to refine their interpersonal, soft skills in order to lead their organizations through these changes. No business leader can afford to underestimate the current skills shift nor the need to future-proof their workforces. 

While automation takes over the lower-level, mundane tasks, leaders must now spend more of their time and effort on complex, high-level activities and decision-making that directly improves their workforce and operations. Critical thinking, creativity, empathy, and ethical judgment are now some of the most in-demand leadership skills and the skills that will be invaluable to the future success of a business, especially one that is rooted in AI.

Alex Fly, CEO of Quickpath