2015 has been a year of dramatic news stories, with the rise of ISIS, mass shootings, racial tensions, and the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage headlining the year’s top stories. Prominent leaders have engaged the attention of the world, from the Pope’s visit to the U.S., to the rise of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. All of these stories have shaped the perception of leadership in the 21st century, and have added layers of new context that need to be understood. With that in mind, let’s explore two of the biggest ideas in leadership from the past year. We’ll start in Part 1 by considering the steady march towards automation and how it reveals one of the greatest skills a contemporary leader can possess. In Part 2, we’ll examine how the “age of global terror” has put a spotlight on crisis decision-making, correspondingly revealing the great need for leaders to be devoted to prayer.
In The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee describe the impact of automation, revealing an underlying fear that technology will render traditional jobs obsolete: “Rapid and accelerating digitization is likely to bring economic rather than environmental disruption, stemming from the fact that as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers. Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead.”
Over the past year, we’ve heard rumblings of Apple potentially getting into the car business, with corresponding news of Google’s quest to produce a consumer-level driverless car. Apple’s “Siri”, Amazon’s “Alexa”, and Google’s “Ok Google” have brought personal assistants to the average smartphone, as we continue to become more reliant on the information they fetch instantly for us. HP announced plans to lay off over 10% of its workforce (close to 30,000) because of advances in automation, and only recently have we learned that Amazon wants to sever its close ties to UPS in favor of, among other alternatives, drone-based deliveries.
Automation is a business term that basically describes how technological innovation impacts daily life. It has lurked in the modern consciousness from the beginnings of the industrial revolution, the rise of the assembly line, and most recently with advances in computer and robotic intelligence.
Many worry that as computers, robots, and drones grow in sophistication, jobs will become harder to come by. In a commonly cited Oxford University study, “The Future of Employment”, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne suggest that 47% of total U.S. employment is at risk because of automation. Attempting to allay this fear, Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby argue in the June 2015 edition of Harvard Business Review that the best way to respond to automation is not to see it as a threat, but as an opportunity to grow. For a special cohort of sophisticated thinkers this might ring true, but this advice sounds hollow to millions of everyday employees worried about their and their children’s futures in an increasingly digitized society.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, has a popular maxim attributed to him that aptly summarizes the condition we find ourselves in: “What is dangerous is not to evolve.”
Automation is happening in every sector of life, but if we dig under the surface just a bit, we’ll find that it reveals the continuing importance of one of the most valuable leadership skills: the ability to communicate. Irving Wladawsky-Berger describes this ability to communicate as “social skills” in a piece on automation in the Wall Street Journal: “One indirect result of the digitization and automation of the workforce has been the elevation of human social skills into one of the most valued assets on the shop floor or in the office.”
He argues that even as computers and robots grow in sophistication and their ability to perform daily tasks, there will always be a chasm between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. Computers have a hard time with tacit knowledge, which is the stuff of problem solving and communicating with nuance, as they live in the realm of explicit knowledge. “Explicit knowledge is formal, codified, and can be readily explained to people, captured in software and executed by a machine. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is the kind of knowledge that we’re often not aware we have, and is therefore difficult to transfer to another person, let alone to a machine. Generally, this kind of knowledge is best transmitted through personal interactions and practical experiences.”
The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) agree with Wladawsky-Berger, listing “the ability to work in a team” as the most desirable attribute of new college graduates in 2015. David Deming, in a Harvard University study published in August 2015 entitled “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market” summarizes the importance of communication and social skills in an increasingly automated world:
“Why are social skills so important in the modern labor market? The reason is that computers are still very poor at simulating human interaction. Reading the minds of others and reacting is an unconscious process, and skill in social settings has evolved in humans over thousands of years. Human interaction in the workplace involves team production, with workers playing off of each other’s strengths and adapting flexibly to changing circumstances. Such non-routine interaction is at the heart of the human advantage over machines.”
It is ironic that in an increasingly digitized world, the greatest skills a leader can possess have to do with the basic art of interpersonal communication.
When it comes down to leadership takeaways, the most important thing we can learn from automation is that we must pay special attention to how we are growing (or becoming worse!) as communicators. How are we treating people? What are the words or phrases that have subtly seeped into our vocabulary over the past year? Are we making an effort to truly connect with those around us and with those we lead? Jesus is our great example. He went to people, where they were, and sought to connect with them, sharing meals, conversations, journeys together. No machine or human invention will ever be able to replicate the true connection of one heart to another. Therein lies the great opportunity and challenge for 21st century leaders.