Who’s smart now? Leadership in the time of artificial intelligence

Wide-angle landscape photo of river on canyon floor, with large rock formations on either side. A trail can be seen at right, coming up from the canyon.

It’s tough being a leader today. Unlike the explorers of yesteryear, no longer is it as easy as organising an expedition to a distant summit then sitting back in the expectation of certain success. Today, those who have attempted such expeditions have often had their hubris checked by an unexpected disruptor with the temerity to catch up and overtake them.

Leaders like to be in control. But the pace of disruption leaves leaders feeling a little breathless as they earnestly struggle to ascend their digital peaks. And they find it relentless—for every zenith they reach today, someone else climbs higher tomorrow.

However, today’s leaders have fought hard to discard the dead weight of laboured budgetary processes and conservative organisational cultures. They have begun to build the agility and entrepreneurism essential to adapt and survive. It’s been a struggle, but slowly their enterprises are becoming fit for the digital age.

And then, inevitably, stepping out from the gloom, appears the next interloper.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been with us for some time. We’ve been using technology to mimic human cognitive processes for nearly as long as we’ve had computers. But forces have coalesced over the past few years to shape AI into a new, more powerful force. One that seeks to throw wide open the gates of competition and challenge every leader on their journey to success.

AI has become so disruptive because four technologies have developed rapidly and combined with seismic effect.

Graphic showing computer chip Graphic showing algorithms Graphic showing data creating growth Graphic showing the cloud

Computing power

The exponential impact of Moore’s Law has resulted in hugely powerful computer chips—we can now do much more within the same physical constraints of silicon circuitry.


At the same time, big leaps have been made in computer science with the development of increasingly sophisticated machine learning algorithms that are more efficient in the way they use those chips to do calculations.


Then there’s data. Lots of it. AI’s power grows through data—as we produce more data in our interactions with digital devices, we train AI to become more insightful, more applicable and create more personal experiences.

The cloud

The final technology that is fuelling the power of AI is the cloud. The cloud is the medium through which AI’s value is experienced. The cloud’s connectivity and scale are the perfect platform for AI, and business leaders are now grasping the limitless potential that these capabilities bring.


Al’s rise results in a single significant challenge for business leaders: the democratisation of intelligence. Competitive advantage has traditionally been founded on the scarcity of intelligence. The acquisition and protection of smart people and smart models of understanding have been key to business success. And then along comes AI. AI automates. AI makes sense of complexity. AI even mimics creativity and empathy. It drives productivity and efficiency among employees. The question for leaders now is how can they find value at a time when AI empowers everyone with intelligence?

The key to success is in recognising the unique value that exists in the combination of people and AI. AI leads to the democratisation of intelligence, but that intelligence still needs to be applied. Human ingenuity is what’s required to translate AI into real value.

Photography depicts the development and design of AI applications. So, as leaders prepare their organisations’ digital paths, three questions will focus their minds:

  1. Are you intelligent? Leaders should have a clear strategy for accessing and deploying the power of AI. This won’t be a uniform one-size-fits-all approach, but it will require harnessing the cloud as the medium for AI power and connectivity. Modernising their technology platform is the most rapid route to AI capability.
  2. Do you have ingenuity? Leaders will need to build a culture of entrepreneurism across the organisation. This is the value creator in the time of AI. Leaders need to develop new skills in their workforce—soft skills alongside creativity—skills that complement AI, rather than duplicate it.
  3. How do you combine intelligence and ingenuity? Leaders must recognise the need to change the way the organisation works if they are to harness the power of AI. Using methods that allow for experimentation are key, as is an emphasis on diversity and transparency to ensure AI is developed and managed without bias and with clear responsibility.

AI offers the potential for leaders to scale great heights. Leaders should set themselves ambitious targets for the success they aim to achieve for their organisations and society as a whole. They should also equip themselves well for what will certainly be a rewarding adventure.

About the author

Richard advises business leaders in the UK on a range digital transformation challenges. However, it’s the building of innovative enterprises that is his real passion. As well as leading Microsoft Services’ CTO practice, Richard works with customers helping them turn ideas into transformational business results.

You can find out more about Richard on Twitter and LinkedIn.