Who Will Lead In The Smart Machine Age?
Batten Institute University of Virginia Darden School of Business | Forbes
We are on the brink of a technology tsunami that will likely be as challenging and transformative for us as the Industrial Revolution was for our ancestors. This tsunami will be led by artificial intelligence (AI), increased global connectivity, the Internet of Things, major advances in computing power and virtual and augmented reality. As a result, the Smart Machine Age (SMA) will fundamentally change the availability and nature of human work and make obsolete the dominate Industrial Revolution model of business organization and leadership.
The organization of the future will be staffed by a combination of smart robots, AI systems and human beings. Humans will be needed to do the tasks that technology won’t be able to do well: higher-order critical thinking, creativity, imagination and innovation and tasks involving high emotional engagement with other human beings (SMA skills). Technology will automate tens of millions of jobs in both service industries and the professions, dramatically reducing human headcount. And technology will likely automate and commoditize operational efficiency, making innovation the dominate value creation differentiator.
In this type of environment, the differentiating capability may well be the human component—how well your people think, innovate and work in teams. Human excellence in performing the SMA skills could well be an organization’s competitive advantage. To achieve that advantage requires a leadership model very different from the leadership model of the past.
Who Will Lead In The SMA?
Under the Industrial Revolution business model, human beings served as resources, tools and units of production and were used to perform certain tasks in a standardized manner. Humans were trained to be machine-like. Leadership and management models were designed to command, control and direct those workers. Good leaders were bosses who expected to be obeyed and who extracted the best results from workers. Cultures of compliance and fear were prevalent. In many businesses today, remnants of that model persist. Relying on that model in the SMA, however, won’t work, because the SMA skills are not the type that you can effectively “command and control” or “direct” people to perform well.
Command and control environments inhibit the types of human thinking needed for human excellence in the SMA. The SMA skills don’t come naturally or easily to us because of our reflexive cognitive and emotional ways of behaving; our tendency to fixate on affirming or defending our egos; and our flight or fight inclinations when our self-images are threatened. To overcome those human inhibitors—ego and fear—requires the right kind of work environment, the right kind of learning and feedback processes and a leadership model that enables the right behaviors that based on science underlie SMA skills. Fear, compliance and hierarchical power won’t work in the SMA.
Leadership in the Smart Machine Age will be more emotional than was needed in the “command and control” era. High emotional intelligence will be required as well as the abilities to connect, relate and emotionally engage with others in a manner that builds trusting relationships. In the SMA, cultures and leadership models should be built upon three psychological concepts: Positivity; Self-Determination Theory; and Psychological Safety. Human excellence in the SMA will require humanistic, people-centric work environments and leaders. It’s ironic that while the SMA will reduce human headcount dramatically in many businesses, it will also require many work environments to become very humanistic and people-centric. And that will require Smart Machine Age Leaders.
|Industrial Revolution Leaders||Smart Machine Age Leaders|
|Command, control, direct||Invite and engage|
|Follow me||Join with me|
|I win||We win|
|Power, perks, prestige||Devalues elitism|
|Social Darwinism||Social Maslowism|
|Elitism and hierarchy wins||Idea meritocracy|
|Individuals win||Teams win|
|Cultures of fear/compliance||Psychologically safe, emotionally positive learning cultures|
|Big “Me”||Big “We”|
Leaders Will Be Enablers Who Role Model The 4Es
What type of leader will be needed in the Smart Machine Age? It won’t be a command-and-control, hierarchical leader. It won’t be an elitist leader. It won’t be a self-absorbed, “it’s all about me” leader. It won’t be a leader who believes individualistic social Darwinism is a fundamental rule of corporate life.
It will be an emotionally intelligent person of the highest integrity and authenticity who has a track record of technical competency and of developing others. It will be a person that colleagues want to have in a leadership position.
I believe those leaders will be better described as Enablers—people who can enable the highest levels of human performance in the pursuit the organizational mission/meaningful purpose. And to do that, Enablers must role model the right mindsets and behaviors: the 4Es.
- Engage with the world as a lifelong learner, with an open, curious mind and a quiet ego;
- Embrace uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity like a courageous scientist who is trained to: (i) embrace the unknown and acknowledge the magnitude of one’s ignorance; (ii) learn by hypothesis testing; (iii) look for disconfirming data; and (iv) be a data-driven decision maker;
- Excel at managing self—how one thinks, focuses attention and manages emotions and behaviors—and excels at Otherness; and
- Enables the highest levels of human development and performance by creating and owning the culture and learning and personal development processes that are designed to enable those results.
In the Smart Machine Age, who will win?
I believe in most industries it will be those organizations who attract, develop, and retain the best thinkers, creators and innovators and excel at continuously creating value for multiple stakeholders. It will be organizations that excel at agility, adaptability and continuous iterative learning in uncertain, dynamic ambiguous environments. Successfully leading those organizations requires a new story about leadership—a story of “enableship” rather than a story of commanding, controlling and directing.
Examples of organizations that are on a leadership journey like this include: Google, Pixar Animation Studios, Bridgewater Associates, Intuit, W.L. Gore & Associates, Ritz Carlton and the U.S. Navy SEALs. All of these organizations have created their unique learning systems that value people, humility, candor, confronting the brutal facts, idea meritocracy, permission to speak freely, the devaluation of elitism, the rigorous use daily of learning processes and mitigating ego and fear. These organizations have embraced a journey that never ends –the journey of human excellence.
Are you on that journey?
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