The role of human agency and leadership in a Digital Age
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The role of human agency and leadership in a Digital Age

Andries De Vos

Former US President Barack Obama once said that “change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek”.

This may have never been more true and yet more challenging.

Organizational paradigms and rise of algorithmic organization

Homo Sapiens are social creatures. Since our origins, we have always survived by organizing ourselves in groups. The way we have organized ourselves has evolved from our hunting-gatherer days to our agrarian societies, to our first multinational organizations, to the rise of the internet and now - to the rise of algorithms.

Each successive organizational paradigm has enabled us to handle more complexity and propel society into ever greater levels of industrial and economic productivity.

Today, every paradigm is still in use and valuable to get specific jobs done. Think of these paradigms like “social technologies” or tools that are still continuously being perfected and improved by an army of academics, authors, business leaders and politicians.

Table source: Andries De Vos

In less than 8 years, analysts expect that the remaining 4+ billion people will be connected to the internet, thanks to advances in broadcasting 5G internet from satellites, suspended balloons and abundant capital from private investors and philanthropists.

All this data will be ingested by our AI algorithms to make sense of the world, and to start managing the world for us - initially with humans making the decisions (“humans in the loop”), and then perhaps without humans in the loop. What is the role of human leadership in a world where algorithmic decision-making takes on a larger role? As AI becomes stronger, will we increasingly have “weaker” human leadership?

These are hard questions to answer.

Strong vs weak leadership

We take a pragmatic starting point to explore this.

We can speculate that AI will at some point in the 21st century have the super-human ability to reason but may not have the ability to be sapient (“feel”) anytime soon. This will leave plenty of room for human leadership to flourish.

The challenge for human leaders will be to have the intellectual and emotional capacity to integrate AI in their workflow and then to adopt the relevant organizational paradigm and accompanying leadership style for the job to be done: meaning-making or consensus (choose the Circle), crisis management (choose the Pyramid), complexity (choose the Organogram), drive collaboration or innovation at scale (choose the Network).

We, therefore, believe strong human leaders will likely remain a fixture in our civilization for some time, still.

And ironically, this brings greater dangers. While AI may not be able to feel, it sure will be able to reason and influence or even persuade human leaders’ decision-making process.

This will pose great challenges to our notion of “human agency”, our capacity to make free choices and to impose those choices on the world. Perhaps never before will we need strong compassionate leaders, who have the courage of their conviction, in the face of strong AI.