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EQ is the 21st century superpower

A robot and a human comforting a colleagueFrom Cleopatra to New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, leadership styles have changed dramatically through the centuries. From the ruthless dictatorship of Ancient Egypt to the empathetic, socially conscious, high EQ trailblazers of today, leaders have adapted their style to keep pace with the changing demands of the world.

Ankle deep in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, today’s leaders face a constant need for reinvention to navigate the trove of managerial trends in the corporate world. Automation is outstripping manufacturing jobs faster than you can say ‘Tesla’, machine learning is reorganising traditional processes, and workforces are being unbundled and reassigned.

But what if AI fundamentally changed the role of a leader?

Imagine a world one day where thanks to smart infrastructure, assets required for running a business are so well instrumented and automated that every aspect of the asset life cycle can be measured, predicted and managed by technology.

Business has optimised use of any and every asset in ways that mean human decision-makers are no longer required. Business strategy is automated; an output of a series of mathematical equations that AI has devised an algorithm for without any need for human input.

What would become the role of humans in leadership positions? What if the role of business leaders becomes more about managing change in people and teams, and the need for emotional quotient (EQ) overrides intelligence quotient (IQ)?

Getting the big picture imperative

Even with some of this tech a way off, it’s no doubt the fundamental nature of leadership is changing. The un-automatable genius of humanity lies in our emotional intelligence (EI). In all probability, the tumultuous nature of today’s world will be confusing, downright scary, at times.

But the leaders of the future must be able to identify with these feelings and be able to orchestrate the atmosphere from one of apprehension to inspiration. Their success will be measured, not just on how well they anticipate market shifts but on how effectively they navigate the mental shifts that changing worlds require.

There’s a great deal of talk these days about change management – and rightfully so. A world once defined primarily by repetition is now defined by transition – a reality that Tim O’Reilly says, “is the biggest transformation in the structure of how humans work together since the Agricultural Revolution.”

But change management should not be used interchangeably with digital transformation. The former is linear, assigned to a step-by-step methodology that is marked by a definitive beginning and end goal. But digital transformation is far more holistic, demanding that the organisation – even industry as a whole – undergo reinvention to future-proof its footprint within the global market.

Says MIT researcher George Westerman, “When digital transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a really fast caterpillar.”

Today’s leader needs that kind of big metamorphosing vision, and the courage and insight to distinguish between managing incremental changes and reconstructing your organisation for digital resilience.

Leaders committed to that level of broad, sweeping transformation must be ‘change-agile thinkers’ who, more than a reason, have a clear purpose to impact, and articulate the ‘why’ of their actions. As we know, humans prefer the habitual and are resistant to change; leaders today anticipate this psychological standstill and draw people into an inspirational story that will motivate bold changes.

Understanding the psychology of change

In an HBR article entitled “The New Psychology of Strategic Leadership“, Giovanni Gavetti says that true leadership – one that is pioneering, bold and inspirational to follow – is deeply human-centric at the core. “The difficult quest for distant opportunities,” he writes, “requires strategic leaders who are good economists and good psychologists.” Masters in the art of associative thinking, should they identify, and need to act on, a distant and risky opportunity in the market.

Falon Fatemi is CEO of the first AI-powered discovery engine Node that revolutionises how people and businesses discover new opportunities on the web through proprietary technology. She suggests that as humans cannot afford to veer away or prevent the rise of AI, we need to “embrace the new reality” and focus our efforts to cultivate a critical “superpower” – EI or EQ.

“The two superpowers of today and tomorrow, AI and EI, must work in a symbiotic relationship. Humans have devoted substantial time and effort towards developing AI tools. It’s time that we wake up to the pressure AI is putting on humans to be far more emotionally intelligent,” she says.

Could an MBA go MIA?

The future training ground for a successful CEO could well be a degree in design or mathematics with a masters in psychology rather than your typical path of a degree in accounting, followed by a masters in business administration.

In the future, it will be key that ‘soft’ skills such as a human’s EI will outrank ‘hard’ skills so ensuring that our future leaders complement, and don’t compete with AI. We can’t yet teach AI to empathise, infer meaning, or manage emotions – all critical elements of the corporate world. With 90% of leadership success attributed to high EQ, universities are changing up the type of education offerings as feeling-type skills become more highly prized than a person’s traditional knowledge base.

Of course, it will still be important for leaders to have a learning mindset – what they are learning may change but in order to succeed, trailblazers will still require an innate curiosity and desire for knowledge.

There are no easy answers and no clear path forward as we all navigate this changing landscape. Leadership today is ambidextrous ‒ wielding supreme business acumen in one hand, and profound insight into human inspiration and empathy in the other. The key to legacy leadership is to develop a kind of fluidity and finesse between the two, balancing IQ with EQ to ensure that AI keeps pulling the best of our humanity out of us.

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