Jobs and the Future of Work

Be real: Authentic leadership in future-ready businesses

Side view of several people in a meeting in a blog post about effective leadership

Integrating artificial intelligence with human intelligence is key to effective leadership. Image: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

Rashimah Binte Rajah
Assistant Professor, University of Twente
Tanja Schindler
Chair, Association of Professional Futurists
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  • Organizations are increasingly adopting new technologies in their business models as they seek to ensure they are future-ready.
  • With artificial intelligence increasingly being integrated into business operations, it is time to update new leadership capabilities.
  • Leaders need to be authentic and embrace soft skills for effective leadership, with a particular emphasis on empathy and creativity.

In ensuring that organizations are future-ready, we are observing an increase in companies adopting new technologies in their business models. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly integrated in business operations, where its analytical power is leveraged for business decision-making.

Indeed, there are currently about 70,000 AI companies worldwide and in the United States alone, the number of AI companies have doubled since 2017. Consequently, the use of AI and other technologies requires the development of new leadership capabilities.

So what happens when the future requires new perspectives and solutions for leadership that differ from past experiences?

Leadership strengths of empathy and creativity

One implication is that leaders must learn to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) with human intelligence (HI), particularly emphasizing human empathy and creativity. This combination can help us transcend the limitations of a data-driven approach and foster innovative, empathetic solutions to emerging challenges.

In the realm of artificial intelligence, it is crucial to address one point: we should not fear AI taking our jobs by acting human. Instead, we need to stop acting like machines ourselves. Since the industrial revolution, we have designed jobs focused on efficiency rather than purpose.

However, humans could recognize that our primary aim may not be efficiency; our strengths for leadership lie in 4Cs: creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

1. Understand changing needs of employees

In a traditional model of leadership, leaders tended to be those who possessed deep technical expertise. Followers used to look up to leaders due to their technical prowess and saw them as reliable persons to go to for solutions to problems.

However, with the proliferation of new technologies, and businesses moving quickly to adapt to them, it becomes almost impossible for us to expect leaders of such companies to already have deep knowledge on these fields which were not established decades ago.

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The Great Resignation waves of 2021 and 2022, during which many individuals resigned from their professional roles, sometimes without having secured their next job, further showed us that priorities have shifted from the employee or follower perspective.

According to Pew Research Center, some of the top reasons employees quit include the feeling of being disrespected at work, and not having their feedback heard from their leaders. It becomes clear that employees are increasingly seeking intrinsic motivation from their work, beyond financial compensation.

2. Create purpose through storytelling and emotional intelligence

Leaders can provide a sense of purpose by employing new skill sets such as storytelling and emotional intelligence. By crafting compelling narratives that align with the organization's mission and values, leaders can inspire and engage their teams.

A the World Economic Forum's Virtual Event on Leadership for Future Readiness, experts shared similar insights with us on some of the ingredients in leading their future-ready organizations.

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At Futures2All, a consulting company for foresight projects for the EU Commission, the importance of assembling teams with complementary, yet compatible culture, mindsets and working styles was emphasized to ensure effective collaboration. This is done by creating high-performing teams to match individual needs of each client’s project.

Meanwhile, at the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), which comprises a volunteer board of 12 individuals, members are motivated via a shared purpose and vision by leadership.

The hierarchy is flattened, and a ‘holacracy’ model is adopted for more effective decision-making. A sense of purpose is fostered among team members through forward-looking narratives as they are guided into the future with hope and joy rather than fear.

3. Be authentic and empathetic

In a World Economic Forum study on future readiness of small and medium enterprises with over 500 CEOs and executive decision-makers, it was found that authentic leadership was key in predicting businesses’ long-term financial growth, societal impact and adaptive capacity.

Authentic leadership is characterized by leading with a vision and values, and fostering authenticity and empowering employees. Stanislas Bocquet, CEO and founder of B-Corp certified tech consultancy firm PALO IT, echoed the results of the study during the Virtual Event on Leadership for Future Readiness that he also prioritizes authenticity and empathy when leading the company.

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By being authentic – i.e., being true to his values – Bocquet creates a company culture where common values are espoused. In PALO IT, driven by its mission of “tech for good”, leaders and employees pursue organizational objectives while being led by shared values and beliefs. In providing recommendations for other leaders of future-ready businesses, Bocquet recommended showing empathy and listening actively to followers’ input.

Indeed, authenticity and empathy are touted as very valuable aspects for leadership today. In essence, followers are increasingly looking up to leaders based on who they authentically are, rather than what they know.

According to Forbes, empathy is also the most important skill leaders should have. Empathetic leaders are associated with positive outcomes such as engagement, innovation and retention.

Importance of soft skills in leading future-ready businesses

As we have highlighted, the use of new technologies such as AI by organizations necessitates new leadership capabilities, with human empathy and creativity key to fostering innovative solutions and transforming work culture.

Providing intrinsic motivation, purpose and support is all important to inspire and engage employees, with soft skills – independent of technical expertise – increasingly important when it comes to making an effective leader.

What is clear is that when leading future-ready businesses, the best advice for leadership is: be authentic, be real.

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