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Mark Bouch

Leading Change

Managing Director

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Leadership: are we at the dawn of robot leaders?


Workplace technology has significantly altered the way we work and interact. Digitisation helps us manage workflow, collaborate, generate ideas and stay connected.

We can work flexibly and be more productive, but we’re at the dawn of a new era of digitisation and some interesting challenges for the way we lead and manage.  

Technology offers solutions capable of automating many time-consuming routine management tasks including staff schedules, performance monitoring and reporting.

We can’t even say that humans make better decisions than well-programmed machines.

Artificial intelligence (AI) powered software can address more variables, more data and examine more scenarios faster than any human.

They are rather good at advanced data analytics and predicting a range of outcomes.

An example of an intelligent machine in use is IBM Watson, capable of processing questions posed in natural language.

IBM Watson is said to be able to process the equivalent of 1 million books per second using hundreds of algorithms simultaneously to identify a small range of solutions and then check its knowledge base to confirm an answer.

These powers were tested extensively against human Jeopardy! champions and, according to contemporary press reports and IBM Corporation, Watson won 65% of test matches and a three match live series.  IBM donated Watson’s $1 million prize to charity.

It’s easy, therefore, to envisage future leaders being supported by machine colleagues to analyse and interpret data to make better decisions.  

Transforming teams

Another area where changes abound is virtual and augmented reality technology (VR/AR), which is reaching maturity.

VR can deliver breathtaking realism, enabling people to be trained in simulated environments whilst AR will increasingly support the delivery of complex and dangerous tasks by providing a composite view of the real world including superimposed computer-generated imagery.

These technologies are already being exploited in many areas to enhance user/customer experience.

Robots enable us to generate more value from data in new ways. They may replace and enhance many essential management activities, creating opportunities to focus on more creative, rewarding and higher-value work.

Leaders will need to adapt to these technologies replacing or enhancing their colleagues in everyday applications.

We envisage further technology development enabling us to work on the move and at home.

Our offices will be re-imagined as collaborative social hubs with facilities for people that need to meet, build relationships, make decisions and perform tasks that we manage less effectively when dispersed.

Gaining greater value

Technology also presents new challenges for leaders. Many organisations are slow to adopt flexible working.

People report they are overloaded by processing too many ‘bits’ of information every day and there’s huge pressure on people to be ‘always on’.

In the late 20th century robots started to replace assembly line workers.

Advances in machine learning and natural language processing enable robots to start enhancing or replacing knowledge workers in data-intensive disciplines like clinical diagnosis, complex data analysis, pharmacovigilance (the monitoring of drug safety), legal research and technical support.  

Robots enable us to generate more value from data in new ways. They may replace and enhance many essential management activities, creating opportunities to focus on more creative, rewarding and higher-value work, but will robots ever replace leaders?  

What’s the role of leaders?

A vast body of literature attempts to classify and define leadership.

John Kotter’s analysis in his December 2001 HBR article What Leaders Really Do proposed that management is about coping with complexity, bringing order and predictability to a situation. In contrast, leadership is about preparing organisations to adapt to rapid change and helping people to cope as they struggle through it.

Kotter described leadership and management as two distinctive complementary systems, both of which are necessary in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.  

Whilst robots are very good at internalising rules, they don’t yet do vision, charisma or demonstrate behaviours.  

He summarised three essential people-related leadership tasks: setting direction, aligning and empowering, motivating and inspiring.

Leadership serves a purpose that adapts to the demands of the prevailing situation.

In the 21st century leadership exists to meet the needs of the digital age, just as it served a purpose in the industrial age, but in a different way.  

The value of leadership is underpinned by several fundamental things that cannot yet be automated. These rely on human attributes such as:

  • Self-awareness (how individuals consciously know and understand their own character, feelings, motives and desires).
  • Imagination (the ability to think beyond our current reality).
  • Conscience (an inherent sense of right and wrong).
  • Independent will (the ability to act/not act based on awareness and judgement).

The relationship between these uniquely human attributes and leadership is immediately apparent when we consider the challenges of leadership in today’s business environment.

Creating purpose

Our business world is frequently described as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous).

Having a vision, or purpose, helps people cope with uncertainty by articulating a compelling picture of what success looks like and why it’s important.

Leaders must establish vision then find ways to communicate it effectively to people.

They also need to balance what and why with the how, reconciling moral and ethical principles to establish and demonstrate appropriate standards of behaviour.

Whilst robots are very good at internalising rules, they don’t yet do vision, charisma or demonstrate behaviours.  


Leaders make intuitive judgments about critical business decisions based on their experience, awareness of the situation, empathy and their conscience.

Machines do this to the extent the variables can be encoded.

Leadership is vital for decisions requiring insight and judgment, where data cannot provide a definitive answer.

The key skill will be to identify which business critical decisions need the application of human judgment and which can be solved (or at least informed) by the press of a button.

Collaboration and connection

Digitisation enables more work to be delivered without congregation.

A leader’s role creating connections, enabling collaboration and building social relationships remains of paramount importance.

Intelligent machines will help us make decisions, perform tasks that can be coded and provide us with freedom by replacing routine functions.

Leaders need to embrace available and future technology to help them manage an ecosystem of dispersed and agile teams, rapidly mobilising and adapting to changing situations.  

Technology will be essential, but it won’t replace the leadership contribution helping organisations and people adapt to change.


Intelligent systems have many advantages including their ability to parallel process and store vast amounts of accessible information.

Machines can compute things like the human brain, but can’t yet replicate consciousness, genuine understanding and creativity. Once again, we humans have unique advantages.

Unlike intelligent robots, which can apply very sophisticated rules and algorithms but have limited ability to improvise and make up new sets of rules to suit previously unexpected situations, leaders can think creatively to imagine completely new concepts or ideas and empower others to do so. 

In a world dominated by intelligent machines able to mimic our cognitive functions, it may be harder for organisations to differentiate themselves without human creativity.

Will we be the servants or masters of robots?  

The more we automate, the more important people become. Leaders will increasingly need to focus on activities and processes that cannot be automated. 

These include helping people deal with uncertainty and change, making the ‘close calls’ and any activities where subtle behaviour and empathy is required.

Intelligent machines will help us make decisions, perform tasks that can be coded and provide us with freedom by replacing routine functions.

As leaders we should think of robots as valued colleagues, able to support, rather than threatening to replace us.  

Instead of focusing on complex tasks, we should be developing leaders who understand that we need to do things requiring our unique human qualities – and we need the wisdom to know the difference.

Interested in this topic? Read Leadership development challenge: implementing AI in the workplace.

Author Profile Picture
Mark Bouch

Managing Director

Read more from Mark Bouch

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