Artificial Intelligence and Authentic Leadership; the ‘new chicken or egg’ question?

With the rise and rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) Mandy Geddes, IECL’s General Manager, Education believes that if we are going to have AI, we are going to need more ‘AL’ – Authentic Leadership that is. As our workplaces are increasingly enhanced by automation, she reminds us of the need to become even more human and embrace our authenticity.

“Automation isn’t going to affect some workers.  It’s going to affect every worker.”
The AI Race (ABC TV documentary, Tuesday 8 August 2017)

AI is already here. There’s a lot of automation in our lives already; you see it every time you ask your smartphone a question, or swipe your Opal transport card, or use a kiosk to check-in for a flight and a smart conveyor belt to take your luggage (or your empty food tray, at Ikea’s cafeteria). Automation allows us to move more quickly and efficiently through our daily lives. The robots are already among us, and they don’t look like the one on Lost in Space. (I sourced the hero image above by asking AI called Google to find it for me…which took at least two seconds!) 

“Don’t underestimate AI,” says Toby Walsh, Professor of Artificial Intelligence, UNSW, in ABC documentary The AI Race. “We used to think of machines as pretty dumb and inflexible but thanks to technology called ‘deep learning’ robots are learning how to be more like us, and learning quickly, from us.” 

However, I believe that if we are going to have AI, we are going to need more ‘AL’ – Authentic Leadership that is. As our workplaces are increasingly shared with non-human “colleagues”, we humans will need to become even more human.

What would that look like?

To my mind it comes down to authenticity. I guess a robot can be authentic, in its own way, but to be authentically human means to be comfortable in your own skin, to be yourself, to be able to be who you truly are, all the time. And that means not having a ‘work self’, a ‘home self’, a ‘weekend self’ or an ‘evening self’ but being yourself 24/7, 365 days a year, in all your flawed and fabulous humanity. Kegan, Lahey and Fleming explore these ideas in their 2016 book, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, and highly rate the value (especially for senior people) of making mistakes, revealing our limitations and supporting each other to overcome them. You can “feast on your weaknesses or starve on your ego,” according to Bryan Ungard of Decurion, of the companies studied for the book. 

In my ideal future world, our flawed humanity would become not only acceptable but desirable. In that world it not only wouldn’t matter if everyone was a bit different, or a bit quirky, but would instead be valued. As Coco Chanel famously said, “Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself.” 

Robots are not necessarily going to be quirky or have a unique personality. Robots presumably will be programmed to be predictable (for efficiency’s sake), and to be familiar (for comfort’s sake). Although ‘they’ are quickly learning from ‘us’; for example, Grammarly corrects your grammar and spelling as you type online, but that’s a lot of data being collected and in a world where “whoever has the most (best) data, wins” (Bruner, 2012) I suspect that ‘input’ has another ‘output’ elsewhere! I believe that in the future, what will make us stand out as humans and allow us to get (and keep) a meaningful job will be our authentic selves, in all our glory. 

As Goffee and Jones say in their HBR article, Managing Authenticity, our growing dissatisfaction with “sleek, air-brushed leadership” is what makes authenticity a trait that is very desirable in today’s organisations, and it’s in short supply. Leaders and followers alike associate authenticity with sincerity, integrity and honesty (Goffee and Jones, 2005). An authentic leader’s words are consistent with their deeds, helping to remove grey areas around ethical decision making. Finding common ground with the people that you want to follow you is the second challenge for authentic leaders, because you may need to present different aspects of yourself to different ‘audiences’, all without being fraudulent with any of them.

What makes you authentic? Are you able to be your authentic self at work? 

In IECL’s Level 3 organisational coach training class we explore true authenticity, and coaching for authentic leadership. We start by looking at how we, as coaches, got ‘here’ – what life journey each of us have traveled to get to where we are, and become the people we have become. Understanding how our own past impacts our present can enable us to coach others to explore this same journey, and make meaning from past experiences – whether positive or negative -to inform their development as authentic and effective leaders. Pausing to reflect on our origins can help us all to be better people, as well as better leaders. As teacher, Dov Seidman, says: “When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings, they start.”

Could this prove to be the most valuable work of our time? If we try to lead perfectly by being ‘perfect’ are we not trying to be a little bit  more like a robot; perfect and yet ultimately un-relatable and even a little bit ‘fake’, due to striving to show ‘the same face’ to everyone we meet? Give me a flawed and yet authentic human being, any day.

Further reference

More info on The AI Race

Mandy Geddes is IECL’s General Manager, Education and has been a key member of our team since 2002. She manages IECL coach trainings and our Alumni program of continuous professional development throughout the APAC region. She has been instrumental in developing (and now maintaining) our ICF accredited status.