Agile Leadership in the age of AI

Apr 30th, 2019

(Agile Leaders Series, No. 2)

“Humanity is the ultimate algorithm”

– Suwen Chen


This is the second in a series of articles by Potential Plus International of what it means to be an Agile Leader in the 21st century.


Is your organisation ready to capitalise on the opportunities offered by Artificial Intelligence (AI)? According to the 2019 PWC CEO survey, 85% of CEOs believe that AI will significantly change the way they do business in the next five years. 42% have already introduced AI into their business and 3% say AI is the heart of their business model. Andrew Ng, in his recent FT podcast explains today’s AI reality: ‘Anything you as a human can do with less than a second’s thought, we could probably now, or soon, automate.’ How will this impact your business?

AI has been integrated in our lives for many years – search engines, Siri or Alexa virtual assistants, drones, autopilot on planes, to name but a few. But the pace of development is now taking us into a brave new world that is set to transform our lives from: driverless cars, smart homes, robot-assisted medical diagnoses and surgical procedures are just the tip of the iceberg.

AI presents opportunities to create value in new ways, transforming business models and competitive advantage.  Making this a reality requires the ability to act with great agility. While last month’s article looked at what you can do as the leader, today we focus on your teams: what are the top skills and traits you need in your team leaders to capitalise on this AI revolution?

Digital literacy, yes. But we are building an unknown future. Competitive advantage will come from how the technology is applied, how new services can be envisaged. And that requires human intelligence. The greater the drive for technological innovation in your business, the greater the need for your leaders to demonstrate exceptional levels of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Once the ‘add on’ to a leadership programme, EQ is today the bedrock of agile leadership and takes centre stage together with problem solving and creativity.

Does leadership development in your organisation reflect this shift? I invite you to ask yourself the following six questions:


  1. Can your leaders matrix-manage?

Today’s agile teams need to be mission-led rather than function-driven.  Diverse mix of skills and profiles are brought together to solve a business challenge, disband and move onto the next. Your team leaders need to be able to engage and manage global teams, mixing internal and external experts, who work and communicate in a joined up way. To succeed, these leaders need to be what AI expert Andrew Ng terms ‘bi-lingual’, both technologically and industry literate.

A client based in Asia had succeeded in her 30 year career with a directive leadership style.  When she relocated to London her role expanded to include European teams, and performance was impacted when her style met with resistance. We worked together to create self-awareness of the impact her style was having, to adapt her approach to one of listening, empowering her teams to take ownership of their business challenges. My client has continued to build on this awareness and expertise, and is now heading global teams at the forefront of innovation. 


  1. Do your leaders encourage innovation?

A client is leading a high-stakes new partnership between two organisations, breaking new territory and creating a brand-new business model. Yet each time she met her boss, she found he focused on what was not working. This was very disheartening and discouraged her innovation, and was deeply demotivating. I worked with the two of them to structure a different conversation which focused on the positives, creating a new dynamic. Agile leaders today build in scope for experimentation and ‘failure’, viewed as opportunities to learn.


  1. Do your leaders predict to engage?

Agility means speed of execution, testing, and moving forward quickly. Engagement is the piece that allows the speed in execution.  If people don’t buy in, this will slow up the process. Understanding how people feel about the digital transformation is critical and paying attention and taking the time to predict and manage these reactions is time well spent.

A CEO client took on some new digital experts recently to join key teams. During my engagement conversations with team members prior to a team day, it became clear that a number of people who had been there for a while were worried that they would be replaced and that the plan was to recruit a substantially younger and more tech savvy team of people. I knew the CEO had no intention of this, however his lack of understanding of what was on their mind and the transparency of how he communicated their appointment could have hindered the success of the change programme significantly.


  1. Are they setting an example?

Do your leaders acknowledge what they don’t know? A client recently introduced new systems, key to a new way of managing clients. Considerable time was given to training the teams and measuring employees’ adoption of this system. Yet it became evident over time that the top team members did not have the capability themselves. This impacted their credibility and the execution of the vision. Leaders today need to know it is fully acceptable to not have all the answers and knowledge, to recognise what they need to learn, and to be transparent about this with their teams and leaders.


  1. Do they challenge and encourage curiosity?

New services and new business models are today born from people’s capacity to challenge, be curious, make connections. Encouraging a culture of discovery, positive challenge and debate is critical to agile cultures. ‘Disagree and commit’ is a management principle attributed to Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, later adopted by Intel and more recently by Jeff Bezos. The principle says that disagreement and debate is important and useful in the debate around decisions. But once the decision is made, people should commit to that decision. Are you developing the skills of your leaders to facilitate and encourage debate in a positive way?


  1. Do they apply wisdom and experience?

Wisdom and experience enables people to make meaning of information – this cannot (yet) be duplicated by AI.  As a specialist in EQ, I am qualified to provide a number of assessments that people can complete on-line with input from their team.  This gives them a measurement of their current level of EQ and which aspects to develop. These assessments provide useful information. However, the real value comes from the conversations I have with key stakeholders – clients, team members, peers.  The questions I can ask in these conversations arise from deep listening and curiosity, and are often unplanned. These insights, often from intuition to explore about what is not being said, can be the golden nuggets about the behaviours required and how these can be applied to have greater impact on themselves, their teams, the organisation and often their family and friends.

The wisdom that is conveyed from senior leaders coupled with my own experience of leading teams in different parts of the world, creates meaning and understanding to the information provided. 

Jack Ma, Founder and Chairman of Alibaba, recently evoked the idea that in 30 years’ time, Time magazine’s CEO of the year will be a robot. Who knows whether that is a reality? But in the foreseeable future, AI will not replace leaders, but leaders who use and harness the man + machine partnership, will have a distinct advantage over those who don’t.


If you are a CEO or leader that wants to be at the top of their game, our bespoke executive and team programmes are designed to challenge and provoke creative thought for growth and competitive edge. To begin a conversation, please contact Oona at Sign up to our Leadership Insights & Articles here.


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