In stark contrast to previous holiday seasons, I spent an inordinate amount of time in deep reflective thought this year. I wasn’t alone on a mountain top in a white robe imitating the “Mountain Dew Guy” or anything — far from it. I was typically off in a corner during one festive occasion or another quietly taking in every moment, movement or bodily function of the three grandchildren who were born into the family during 2019.

As I supportively lurked in the background, it was impossible not to conjure up multigenerational memories of “Christmas past” while observing “Christmas present”:

  • I (and a few other aging Boomers around me) was born into a world with no microwave ovens, dishwashers or trash compactors.
  • My “kids” (somehow, now, parents) were born into a world that had just introduced fax machines and was experimenting with personal computers and something called a cell phone.
  • My grandkids were experiencing their first impressions of the world by actively observing a dozen or so adults sending and receiving live pictures and video to and from distant relatives while barking instructions to Alexa (or maybe it was Siri) to play different music, turn up the oven and dim the lights.

There is nothing like a cheerful holiday celebration to effectively demonstrate the transformative impact technology, in general, and artificial intelligence (AI), in particular, is having on everything. You can’t help but think about the potential implications for “Christmas future.”

As I see it, technology has always existed to help anybody who was interested perform any number of tasks better and faster. In spirit, you could suggest that it all started a little over 100 years ago with Frederick Winslow Taylor; the Industrial Revolution; and an ongoing, never-ending commitment to production efficiency. In that regard, there was a time, if you were in the business of leadership development, when you felt immune to any potential threat imposed by this efficiency evolution. No matter how automated or well-organized a production line became, there was always going to be a need and a place for leaders and the training professionals who taught them how to effectively influence … right?

Somewhere along the line, the waves of technology-driven change started crashing the shoreline well beyond the retaining walls we in leadership development had firmly established (primarily to ensure our own stability). Now, here we are, with artificial intelligence!

AI is a computer system that learns from the experiences it encounters. It’s sort of like an ongoing, never-ending algorithm that automatically updates. It mimics human reasoning, and, based on countless examples along an ever-expanding spectrum that has long transcended production efficiency, it can mimic beyond your wildest imagination!

At this point, that expanding spectrum most assuredly includes leadership training. For your consideration, here are a few potential risks and benefits associated with leveraging AI to build leaders.

Potential Risks

Leaders Who Quit Thinking

Leaders are thoughtful people; they always have been. They see things the rest of us don’t see, primarily because they incessantly ask “why” (especially when things don’t go according to plan).

Can AI work effectively in concert with contemporary and future leaders to go from “good to great”? Absolutely. By the same token, the better human development-focused AI becomes, the higher the risk that the best and brightest among us will stop searching and start settling.

Extinguishing (or Diminishing) Emotional Intelligence

How many uber-talented poets, lyricists or authors throughout history have figured out a way to eloquently describe the power and potential embedded in human emotion? (Spoiler alert: Many!) In the “for what it’s worth” category, here is one of my favorite soundbites on the topic:

“I may well forget what you said, or even what you did, but I will always remember how you made me feel” (Anonymous).

Again harkening back to the days of Frederick Winslow Taylor, people who tend to rely (almost exclusively) on analysis tend to discount emotion. When it comes to leadership, however, the data confirms strong correlations between human emotions and outcomes like productivity, engagement and the retention of key talent. No matter how many human experiences a computer system absorbs and how well it mimics human reasoning, there will be unintended consequences associated with relying on an algorithm to elicit the kind of unexplainable emotion that makes human beings human.

Potential Benefits

Enhanced Diagnosis

The flip side of the first risk (leaders who quit thinking) is that we can leverage AI to enhance the diagnostic capability of leaders, providing them with much higher probabilities of success.

When a leader can incrementally define and articulate a specific task, it becomes far less challenging to assess the readiness of the follower in question to successfully perform it. This approach increases the likelihood of a leadership style “match,” accelerated development and the achievement of targeted outcomes.

Imagine a world where leaders at all levels could have access to an algorithm fueled by the countless experiences of the people who went before them. Without a doubt, it could reduce the leadership learning curve in a manner that would benefit us all.

Anytime, Anywhere Access for Practice

Leadership is complicated by nature — in large part because people are complicated. Sometimes, you can exercise a well-constructed plan perfectly, and it blows up in your face. Other times, you can wing it, convinced you are about to fail miserably, and all the pieces of the puzzle somehow made their way into place just in time.

As such, leadership is anything but an exact science. It is a probability science. Those probabilities skew in a leader’s favor if they have effectively diagnosed the situation and accurately assessed the ability and willingness of the people they will be attempting to influence. They skew even further the more the leader can practice the attempt to influence and receive targeted feedback over … and over … and over again.

Simply stated, AI can help leaders practice leadership. It’s like they are an aspiring pilot in a flight simulator somewhere safely on the ground. They’re getting a sense for what it’s like to be up in the air before they actually are. You can program your leadership simulator with particulars about the situation and the task as you have defined it, as well as specifics about the person a leader will be attempting to influence (e.g., level of experience, time with the company, personality, etc.).

As is the case with just about anything, practice does not make perfect — perfect practice makes perfect. And AI is a tool with unlimited potential to augment any leadership training event by providing unlimited opportunities for perfect practice, feedback and skill enhancement.

I, for one, am looking forward to “Christmas future” in so many ways! I do leadership training for a living, but the leaders I am most interested in will be huddled around our tree again in 11 short months. I wonder if any of this influence-focused AI leadership stuff could help any of them … or, perhaps, even me!