Who was the best leader in history? Jesus, Churchill, Alexander of Macedon? And would their personalities still succeed today in the age of AI? The times seem to favor skillful politicians or, at worse, autocrats or populists, and the AI world goes its own way.
Image 1: Human Leader & AI (Created by AI)
Let's take a look together at the following leadership chapters that we consider essential today:
In ancient Greece, three maxims were carved into the rock at the Delphic oracle:
Times are changing, but humans are basically unchanged regardless of AI development. Self-awareness as the foundation of leadership is enjoying a renaissance in the West today. Perhaps a little differently than we would like from leaders. There is a lot of talk in the public space about childhood traumas and our confusion about values. We are robbing the Eastern traditions of a simplistic form of mindfulness that teaches us to observe and suppress thoughts so that a state of "flow" comes instead of a full transformation of our shadows into sources of new energy. Highlighting the polarities between men and women, laying out long paths, and offering blood, sweat and tears in return, as Winston Churchill once did, is simply not in vogue today.
To be authentic, that is, to be a person who has come to know himself and is thus believable to those around him, is still great and necessary. Paradoxically, however, this nowadays leads more to the glorification of outsiders who have proficient communication skills that get them promoted in corporate environments or social media with their controversial statements. Mnislav Zeleny, an Indian named Atapama, lived in the Amazon for many years and says that these tribes will choose a person as chief who doesn't make a lot of promises, but they know him personally as a leader from hunting or battle. We in the west elect people we don't know as a rule, but who promise us a lot and preferably don't ask us for anything. The fact that the promises are not kept, or these pseudo elites then replace them with more grandiose and less believable ones that we jump on thanks to good PR is the reality of what we live with. Moreover, these elites often lie to us so authentically that they themselves believe what they say in short when they have their "stand up".
The question of why authentic leadership is no longer enough in today's hyper-PR world is obvious.
Image 2: Authentic Leader (Created by AI)
What gets attention grows. Whether it's children or our LinkedIn profile. It's no coincidence that the field of neuroscience is seamlessly intersecting with psychology, AI, media, and there's even a field of attention economics. As information chaos or entropy increases it becomes more important not to know more than others, but to know what not to notice. Human attention and ability to focus can undoubtedly be trained, just as emotional intelligence can be developed as a faster and often more accurate way of processing information. Part of self-knowledge is not only knowing your family patterns, but more importantly, being able to feel your own body and being able to recognize and correct activities and interactions throughout the day that take or give energy. This is not alchemy, the thought-emotion-body biochemistry axis is well described in the literature, and so the West often applies concepts such as positive psychology, meaningfulness or flow state in sport or medicine. For those interested in this Western concept, which I do not have space to discuss here, I recommend Martin Seligman's book "Flourishing".
In the long run, I think it is more inspiring to draw on the full traditions of Eastern and Western philosophy than to simplify our lives to mindfulness practices, which I still think is a great start. Interestingly, the Zen Buddhist masters valued people capable of standing up to ordinary life far more than monks insulated from the rigors of life, and they always welcomed the willingness to lead and make decisions, however flawed.
I see modern leadership not only in the formulation of an attractive vision supported by great emotional and social intelligence influencing the environment, but above all in the ability to work with one's inner world and work with data. An effective manager does things the right way and is often exhausted by it; a leader takes energy from channeling their instincts and emotions in the right direction. Plato, in his treatise on the soul, compares reason to a charioteer who steers his destiny along the vault of heaven by taming two horses, i.e., impetuosity and desire, (Plato, Phaedrus 253e-254e). The sad fact is that psychopaths and populists are also great at working with instincts and emotions, and the only thing they lack are values, which in their opinion only unnecessarily delay them.
Voice control of technology, automation of repetitive actions, generative tools for creative text, images, videos, and facilitation of specific tasks is and will be the new standard.
What is pleasing is that with the advent of large language models (LLM), we are witnessing the democratization of AI, i.e., that the average user does not need to know programming syntax and just needs the ability to articulate his or her task well. Where I see the future of leaders in relation to AI is the principle of co-piloting and chaining AI models to execute more complex activities across company processes and across society. An individual can do so much more through his or her own creativity and AI-enabled efficiency, and the impact on society can multiply almost exponentially.
But the original driver should be a truly quality leader who sees good paths where others do not, whether based on intuition or data. At the moment, I don't think that is the case. The Status Quo of today is not to have an idea, but to have money and an obsession to gain power. Professional influence teams operate on the principle of: data insight, promoting controversy, amplifying and disseminating information, which they skillfully personalize and moderate because they know the algorithms of social networks better than others. Teams around Donald Trump's candidacy or Brexit withdrawal from the EU are prime examples. AI tools are likely to form an integral part of leaders' toolkits in the future and can help them to push their visions and personal effectiveness. As an IT person, I wish this high AI literacy was part of the toolkit of today's authentic leaders, but the present is different. The world is overwhelmed with information chaos, differentiating quality content is difficult and thus brutality wins i.e. either the power of money or the power of repetition. This puts the biggest amplion in the hands of those who either have it or are the most emotionally attractive which we describe in the next chapter.
Image 3: Augmentation by AI (Created by AI)
In the chapter on values and populism, it is worth recalling Cicero's quote: "Three things a speaker must attend to: what he says, where he says it, and how he says it." In other words, the failure of elites and leaders often lies in their disconnect from those to whom they speak, for their followers can neither be adored nor ignored. The intelligence and decision-making of the crowd, as any larger grouping of those who can be leaders can be called, is most often governed by the lowest common denominator. Acting on instincts and emotions is what works fastest here, (Le Bon, Psychology of the Crowd).
People will come to you either if you promise them something or if they feel comfortable with you. The former is easier to promise, which is why today's populists are gaining followers so quickly in complex times of misunderstanding and disillusionment over inequality. The recipe is known and it works, i.e. overwhelming criticism, no complicated solutions, but big promises. The value leaders are not much in the marketplace, or rather they are often elsewhere than in the public space, which they have evaluated as a playground where their style can hardly be applied. The western world is doing the best economically in its history and it is unrealistic to expect the crowd to elect someone who promises nothing but blood, sweat and tears.
The responsibility of values leaders is to offer alternatives, to educate and do good in smaller and coherent groups that are interested in these alternatives. Whether it is a small town, a sports team, a private business, a scout, a school, or a "think-tank" group.
History shows that the ability of leaders to build effective teams is a good strategy in the long run, even if it does not lead to quick power grabs. Values leaders only come to power in times of crisis, and these are periodic, so in that sense, somewhat sarcastically, the worse for humanity the better for its values. Each people have the government they choose, and we live in a global world connected thanks to AI technology as well, so agreeing on value leaders that form the intersection of multiple entities will take us longer. This needs to be accepted, no need to complain about the stupid crowd, but we need to offer alternatives and rehabilitate the elites who should be able to help the led crowd not just benefit from it.
Frankly, it's probably going to be a long road, because leadership in the AI world means offering global solutions on a planet that is already definitively connected but hasn't yet found consensus. With a knowledge of sociology, we can probably work well with the fact that people around the world have essentially the same ideas about life values. In 1994, Shalom H. Schwartz published an extensive psychological study where several universal values emerged across all societies regardless of religion or level of development. These are values that balance each other such as: power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, universalism, benevolence, tradition, conformity and security, (1994, Schwartz).
And here I see optimism and a new path for authentic leadership, enhanced by AI competencies that will enable new leaders to reach people in times of crisis with topics that unite and do not divide them. The fact that we are currently living in a time of crisis and controversy can be seen from a long time series perspective as either a froth of days or a call to start looking for new solutions, even with the help of AI. However, I do acknowledge that life is somewhat turbulent in this time of transition from the old days to the new ones not yet defined. But if it is true that knowledge is power, and that the light side of power is more powerful than the shadow, then we need to start transforming the shadows and actively using the resulting power of AI and data.
Today, we would probably not choose Jesus, Churchill or Alexander of Macedon as our leaders. For they would offer us unpopular value visions, and they would also lack a large amplion to increase their impact. This is now in the hands of the technologists of power who, while lacking big ideas, have the perfect background of social media teams, including chatbots and knowledge of AI algorithms to enable one-to-many & authentic communication. But needless to despair, the zeitgeist is pregnant with the need for a positive future, and new leaders need to add to their arsenal what they have been lacking until there is a real demand for them.
About the author:
Richard A. Novák is an expert in ethical AI, digitalization and IT management. He graduated from the Czech Technical University in Prague and received his Ph.D. in Big Data Ethics from the Faculty of Informatics and Statistics at the University of Economics in Prague. He founded the Prague Data Ethics Lab with his colleagues and teaches courses related to Ethical AI and IT Governance at the VŠE. He founded and currently serves as CEO of Omnicrane, a startup focused on applying AI to SalesTech and MarTech. Previously, he held the position of Vice President at telecommunications companies T-Mobile Czech Republic, GTS Czech and Director of IT Services at Slovak Telekom.
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