AI as a Leader? A Conversation We Need to Have!

Are you still working yourself—or are you letting artificial intelligence (AI) do the work for you? Perhaps you’re perfectly fine leaving certain standardized managerial tasks to AI, whether that be writing a job ad, monitoring task completion, or giving feedback . But did you know that leadership, supposedly the last bastion of humans, is not safe from AI’s influence either? Digital tools will not simply change the world of management; they have the very real potential to take the lead. Read on to learn more about why this is the case and the questions we should be asking ourselves today.

By Professor Niels Van Quaquebeke and Professor Fabiola H. Gerpott (WHU)

The digitalization of leadership

How can an AI become the boss? Already during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen how crucial digital technologies have become for leadership. Without Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and related programs, leaders would not have been able to reach their employees easily. These tools continue to enjoy a secured place in the office today.

There is no surprise there. Anything that can be considered a competitive advantage will be utilized as such, and digital options are often quicker, more cost-efficient, or simply more convenient. Indeed, in the future, leadership as a whole is going to make giant leaps toward digitalization. The next phase is therefore only logical: digitally supported leadership, that is AI assisting human managers (e.g., for the preparation of strategic decisions or analyzing employee behavior). And the phase after that is also already on the horizon:  AI substituting human leadership as opposed to merely supporting it.

Forget any romantic notions you may have about leadership

“Stop!” we hear some of you shouting. “‘Real’ leadership needs real people! How is AI supposed to motivate employees or instill in them any sense of enthusiasm for the company’s goals?” You may not like our answer: Forget any romantic notions you have about leadership. AI will likely do an even better job than (average) leaders today do. If we maintain our romantic point of view, we are going to be woefully underprepared when reality comes knocking.

How AI can be the better leader

How is it that AI, in the future, will be accepted as a leader? The AI leader of the future will most likely not be a mere chat program. It will sit on your devices with natural speech functionality (just as Siri and Alexa do now) and perhaps present itself as a human, or rather an avatar, visible through the use of VR goggles.

How effective an AI will be in its role as a true leader will be contingent on how deeply the AI used can understand the three basic psychological needs of its employees. Humans long for belonging, mastery, and autonomy – because truly fantastic leaders are good at addressing these needs. But let’s be honest for a moment: How many truly fantastic bosses have you had across your career? Many leaders are stressed out, overworked, inattentive, unwittingly unfair, or simply not very empathetic. Future AI, with the ability to record and regard any important details, would be an advantage in many situations here.

Already today, man and machine interact with one another in harmony, for instance in the field of online therapy. In fact, many people are less hesitant to open up to a computer, and some programs are so sophisticated that their communication is barely indistinguishable from humans. Why shouldn’t that apply to the field of leadership?

Don’t let your worry get in the way of constructive co-creation

Of course, regardless of all the potential benefits, this idea alone could spark fear in us. But we should have an open dialogue about this rather than fearing the worst! What does this development mean for leadership? Which leadership roles will people be able to (or need to) take on in the future? What needs to change in leadership research and education in order to help shape the ethical aspects of such man-to-machine interaction?

The way we see things? Yes, there is still a need for human leaders. But in the future, they will need to understand both what makes people tick and how AI works. Their main responsibility will be leading computers that, in turn, lead humans. In this capacity, they will have to decide upon the rules that machines will follow. We better talk about these now before machines make up their own.

More details on this topic:

  • Van Quaquebeke, N., & Gerpott, F. H. (2023). The Now, New, and Next of Digital Leadership: How Artificial Intelligence (AI) Will Take Over and Change Leadership as We Know It. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, online first.