Machines can’t be leaders. Future-proofing human skills in an AI world

Should we worry about AI diminishing our contribution and impact at work?

It’s a firm ‘No’ from us at Insights.

Surrounded by colossal changes in how organisational processes are becoming optimised by machines, do we think that honing our interpersonal skills needs more attention? Yes!

We know that AI will fundamentally alter the human-machine dynamic at work, emerging as a key ‘collaborative partner’. We hear much talk of the extent to which AI’s analytical capabilities will blend with human creativity and emotional intelligence.

As organisations in multiple industries and fields adopt more automation, we’re already seeing a shift towards the need for more technical skills. But this is also a huge opportunity to celebrate, enhance and develop the very skills that make us human.


AI is a good opportunity to review how we interact with each other in the workplace

With so much change afoot, it’s an ideal opportunity to review how we interact with our colleagues and to take a closer look at what great teamwork really involves.

Why? Because as automation improves speed, accuracy, consistency, efficiency, predictions, and decision-making, it also frees us up. Now that certain repetitive, administrative and menial tasks are disappearing from our remit, we can give more energy to the uniquely human aspects of collaboration, building human connections, creativity and ability to innovate.

As leaders find themselves having to redesign teams and roles and adapt to the AI landscape, the benefits and importance of emotional intelligence come to the fore.

As those same leaders reskill teams, help them work efficiently with traditional and generative AI systems, and equip them for new types of collaboration, it’s an opportunity to review their own personal leadership skills.

It's time to ask: what, as a result of AI, do leaders need more of?


How to lead effectively in a world that’s embracing AI

Organisations used to call what we’re talking about here as ‘soft skills’. Now they increasingly and wisely recognise these intangibles as ‘power skills’. It’s how we’ll differentiate ourselves as AI transforms workplaces and organisational processes, causing entire businesses to be reshaped.

Here, we’ll revisit the human superpowers and leadership skills that AI is less able to compete with. These skills are not just important, they’re essential: if we get lazy and give in too far to machine capabilities, if we neglect our invaluable human cognitive advantages and fail to improve our emotional intelligence, we jeopardise several things:

  • The retention of employees we can’t afford to lose
  • The emergence of exciting talent rising through the ranks
  • The recruitment of future colleagues who’ll keep us competitive
  • Our ability, as leaders and colleagues, to cope with far-reaching change
  • Our sense of purpose, identity and relevance in our own reshaped roles

There are, of course, industries and roles that AI is unable/less able to replace:

  • Healthcare, eldercare, childcare: we’ll still need nurses, health consultants like doctors, therapists, and counsellor
  • Education: we’ll always want human teachers, instructors, and school administrators
  • Creativity: we still want to enjoy live musicians and artists, opinionated writers and journalists
  • Personal services: AI can’t replace hairdressers, personal trainers or coaches
  • The interpersonal skills essential to HR, PR and event planning

The list goes on. It might get shorter as AI gets smarter, but we can take comfort in the fact that certain human skills remain irreplaceable. And where AI does start to creep into parts of these professions, it can’t act alone. If we view AI as the enterprise of getting computers to act and think like humans, there will always be a need for intelligent, considered human input.


Leadership skills that AI can’t replace

There are multiple workplace requirements where machine solutions won’t ever be preferable to human intervention. 
As leaders, it will always be important to possess, improve and nurture all of the following:

The ability to inspire others and communicate well: leaders still need to inspire and guide their teams with empathy, even when swathes of work become automated. For this, they still need a purpose-led vision, and they need to bring people with them on the journey. Giving people clarity (around their changing roles) and confidence (that they still have an important role to play amidst huge change) is crucial.

Empathy and collaboration: leaders will always need to build a variety of multi-level relationships, understand diverse perspectives, and develop strong self-awareness to work effectively in teams. They’ll need great self-management and social awareness too, to help teams deal with conflict and pressure. Tone is everything. AI can’t replace our ability to read the room, or deal with sensitive personal or ethical dilemmas.

Wellbeing and psychological safety: this requires the human ingredient that is trust, as well as an astute understanding of what’s important to team members from (possibly) a variety of backgrounds. It needs a personal appreciation of the individual challenges they may face and how organisational culture affects their workplace experience.

Mentoring and coaching: these skills help foster team harmony and empower us to retain a strong sense of purpose and direction.  Thoughtful, contextual feedback is something AI struggles with.

Nuanced decision-making: we can expect AI to be able to frame decision choices and map out risks, opportunities and consequences. But AI won’t match the clues, hints, intuition, hunches and educated guesses that an experienced leader brings to the table.

Problem-solving and critical thinking: not just the granular kind that machines can handle by identifying patterns, but problems that need us to dial up our strategic foresight, lateral thinking and sense-making skills: In other words, the ‘wide angle lens’ that can link interconnected events and how they might play out.

The art of persuasion and negotiation: while it’s true that AI can model and simulate various negotiation scenarios, allowing us to test different approaches and identify potential outcomes, the subtle art of making it work in practice is down to human skill alone.

Conflict management: leaders need to be able to resolve human disputes in a way that doesn’t threaten team harmony. And that means active listening skills, diplomacy, and a deeper understanding of not just self-awareness but ‘other-awareness’, i.e. why some colleagues have contrasting behaviour preferences and communication styles and how to handle them.

Nuanced storytelling: the ability to create engaging narratives and compelling stories that tap into our emotions will still shine through in the face of AI. We still need stories can capture and empathise with the human condition and experience. It will still fall to humans to add the twists, surprises and insights into the human psyche that the computer can’t experience. Imagine the world of marketing without these human skills!


Spotlight on learning and development

It’s worth noting too that future-proofing leadership is not just about individual skills. It’s also about creating an organisational culture that prioritises continuous learning and development. According to 2023 Leading in Learning figures by Deloitte, companies with a strong learning culture are 92% more likely to innovate and 58% more prepared to meet future demand.

We’ve firmly entered an era of having to make rapid learning adjustments as AI changes how we work.  But learning how to work with AI and understand its potential impact on our daily lives, roles and responsibilities is only one part of that.

Equally as important now is to learn how to become better at the parts that only humans can excel at and to share this learning with our colleagues and teams. However excited we may be at what AI is enabling us to do at work and in wider life, we won’t stop appreciating (or needing) human integrity, compassion and sincerity, especially in life’s tougher moments.


Let’s elevate our human skills in the AI-infused workplace

Introverts and extraverts, thinkers and feelers alike, none of us are immune to the superior benefits of the human touch. AI will go a long way to making (parts of) our working lives much easier, but most of us still need other people – and therefore great teamwork - to help us thrive.

This is an ideal time for leaders to check in with and boost their interpersonal skills.

After all, where does it leave humanity if we give up on trying to communicate personally and meaningfully with each other, just because we’ve taught machines to act ‘like’ humans…