The Best Leaders Can’t Be Replaced by AI
This article was originally published in Harvard Business Review.
With access to unlimited information, superior processing power, rapid learning capabilities, and no emotional constraints, artificial intelligence will soon surpass human ability in many areas of leadership. Our research, for which we surveyed more than 600 employees across multiple industries, indicates that employees already have more confidence in AI than in their human bosses in certain areas of leadership.
But just because AI can master many complex processes at work, it does not mean that leaders are at risk of being replaced. Humans want to be led by other humans, even if that humanity comes with flaws and messiness.
This lines up with our research from over the past 10 years, in which we analyzed and mapped what it means to be an effective and successful leader today. In short, we have found that the more human you are in your leadership, the better the outcomes for your teams, your organization, and yourself. Successful leaders today need to understand and leverage the benefits of AI. At the same time, they need to embrace their uniquely human qualities more fully.
Faster, More Accurate, Less Biased, More Consistent
We interviewed employees to understand how they would feel about the integration of AI in leadership. As one employee from a global consulting firm shared, “In my career, I have often experienced leaders who didn’t understand my area of expertise and were mostly focused on their own advancement. In many cases, I think I would have been better off with an AI bot that could be precise, unbiased, and uber-smart in how to develop me and guide my work.”
AI can analyze vast amounts of data and identify patterns more accurately than any human being. With AI, you can reduce or eliminate the influence of a leader’s mental state, background, and personal relationships/position/perspective, which positions AI to excel in the areas of strategy and decision-making. In our research, we found high levels of confidence in AI when it comes to strategy and decision-making. Notably, 65% of respondents in our survey were “somewhat” to “completely” confident in AI’s ability to develop a strategy.
AI can also be more consistent and less variable than human leaders, which is beneficial in certain areas of leadership like planning, work assignments, and work prioritization. Respondents in our survey reported being comfortable with AI playing a role in analyzing their performance and optimizing actions and decisions: 43% “agree” or “strongly agree” and 23% are “neutral” on this topic.
Interestingly and perhaps surprisingly, 45% of respondents indicated that they are “somewhat” to “extremely” comfortable getting AI-driven performance feedback, as long as it is positive (more on this in the next section). Perhaps this is because AI can offer employees more personalized, real-time feedback on their performance. AI can analyze an employee’s strengths and areas of improvement and offer guidance, training, or other resources to help them grow.
But these benefits, and the future benefits to come as AI advances, should not make leaders afraid of being replaced. As our research shows, employees want to be led by a human, not technology.
Imperfect But Authentic
As much as AI has the potential to be a great support for leaders, it has its limitations. Though we often think of work as ideally organized, professional, and calibrated, in reality, work is full of messy dynamics, insecurities, personal agendas, and hopes. Why? Because we are all just humans showing up at work. And it is in these very human areas where AI has its greatest limitations. Our research found that people have limited trust that AI can understand human behavior at work better than human leaders (57% don’t trust and 22% are neutral). Moreover, 60% of respondents are concerned about the possibility of AI analyzing and leveraging employee emotions for decisions.
The above is supported by academic research which finds that employees have underlying distrust and discomfort with AI when it comes to personal matters. People worry about how AI might misuse or mishandle personal data, leading to feelings of vulnerability. Many people harbor fears of discrimination if AI adopts prejudiced strategies and unjustly treats certain groups. Others have fears about a lack of transparency and the “black box” in which AI decisions take place, opening up uncertainty about how recommendations are generated. Humans have the responsibility to avoid these management failures as well.
Rather than fret about this resistance, leaders should use this feedback from employees as an indicator of where they should spend their time — in the very human, emotional parts of work that require care, transparency, and courageous conversations.
Nowhere is leadership transparency and candor more necessary and valuable than in the areas of hiring and promotions. Very few areas of our work lives trigger as much hope, anxiety, pride, or disappointment. For this reason, employees don’t want AI involved at all. When we asked in our research if people had concerns about the use of AI to make decisions about hiring, promotions, and work assignments based on its understanding of human behavior, 69% responded that they “agree” or “strongly agree.”
And, even though employees may be comfortable receiving positive performance feedback that is AI generated, as noted above, the reverse is true when it comes to negative performance feedback. In our survey, only 25% of respondents would be “somewhat” to “extremely” comfortable receiving negative feedback on job performance if it was generated by AI. Fifty-five percent would be “somewhat” to “extremely” uncomfortable.
Despite the complexity and messiness of human interactions, employees still value them over AI’s promise. This, of course, doesn’t mean we should shun AI and its many performance benefits. Instead, the best leaders of today — and tomorrow — find a balance in their practice that embraces AI and its many strengths while also doubling down on their very human qualities as leaders.
How to Embrace AI While Valuing Human Qualities
In our AI-enabled future, leaders who leverage AI will have a distinct advantage in productivity, efficiency, and decision-making. At the same time, leaders who exhibit more human-centered leadership will excel at attracting, retaining, developing, and motivating top talent. How do you figure out whether you should leverage AI or bring your human qualities to a situation — or utilize a combination of these resources? Ask yourself these two questions:
- Does the situation rely on knowledge, rational thinking, or analysis?
- Does the situation require social, emotional, or interpersonal qualities?
Consider the matrix below that lays out when leaders should leverage AI and when they should focus on the best of their human qualities.
Today’s best leaders are already engaged in understanding what AI can do, what it can’t do, and some of the ethical issues associated with its use. There are many great articles and resources available that include use cases and strategies for getting started. But the work doesn’t end there. Leaders need to dive into the work of becoming more human leaders who engender trust and loyalty with the same zeal and commitment.
The Core Qualities of Human Leadership
This is the best place to start that process. Over the past decade, we have gathered data from 75,000 leaders and employees across all industries and around the globe, interviewed hundreds of experienced executives, and collaborated with researchers from Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School, and Rotman School of Management.
One executive we interviewed said it this way: “Leadership is about unlearning management and relearning being human.” Human leadership is about showing up as an authentic human being with vulnerability, imperfections, and often without all of the answers. At the very core of human leadership are three core qualities: awareness, compassion, and wisdom.
Awareness is the capacity of the mind to be cognizant of your mental state, thoughts, and emotions, as well as the world and people around you. With awareness, you gain greater self-mastery of your thoughts and emotions and are better able to lead others. With awareness, you also develop mental agility, the ability to alternate between zooming in on important priorities and tasks and zooming out on the bigger picture. In a fast-paced world, mental agility is foundational for getting important work done while making sure there is alignment between the bigger picture and the details of your task. Awareness is a uniquely human quality. AI is not (yet) self-aware and is not able to make independent choices based on non-linear, non-computable awareness.
Compassion is the capacity of the mind to care for oneself and others. Compassion begins with empathy as the spark but then adds action and an intention to benefit others. When you practice compassion, you develop caring courage — the ability to engage courageously in human dynamics and never shy away from difficult conversations. And you learn caring transparency — the ability to be upfront and honest so people know where they stand. Compassion is a uniquely human quality that fosters trust and enhances psychological safety, enabling greater performance in your people and teams. Although AI is becoming better at mimicking human emotions like empathy, compassion remains out of reach.
Wisdom is the capacity of the mind to discern and form sound judgment based on experience. Wisdom is about seeing things as they really are, free from the limitations of one’s ego, and knowing the right thing to do for your people and your organization. A key component of wisdom is a beginner’s mind, or the ability to stay radically open and not let experience overly influence you. When you practice wisdom, you also deepen your integrity, or the ability to act according to your conscience and morally-guided values. Although AI can provide us with vast amounts of data and knowledge, it requires leaders’ unique capacity for discernment and the ability to make wise decisions to be truly valuable.
The three qualities of awareness, compassion, and wisdom are at the core of being a great human leader. If you are curious to learn more, assess your own capacity for human leadership, and get personalized input on how to enhance it, we are pleased to provide you with free access to our Human Leader Assessment here.
The future of leadership is AI-enabled — not AI-dominated. There is no doubt that AI has and will continue to transform our work and our lives. In the not-so-distant future, most of us will spend most of our day interacting with various systems and tools that will guide our decisions and actions. Leaders who don’t understand this fact and are unable to leverage AI will be left behind.
At the same time, employees still want and value human-centered leaders, despite the shortfalls and blind spots that come along with them. Leaders who deepen their ability to lead with humanity will win at attracting, retaining, developing, and motivating top talent. This will require us to tap into distinctly human qualities like awareness, compassion, and wisdom. For all of us, this is an amazing opportunity: an opportunity to be more authentic, more connected, more human.