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The rise of sophisticated data analytics and sentient machines is ushering in a new era of business leadership. The demands on CEOs from their non-human resources mean C-suites and boardrooms will never be the same again.

Machines can already pilot planes, play the stock market, compose classical music, plant crops, play video games and decide when to launch ballistic missiles.

Almost every day, scientists uncover new ways in which they can replace humans, with only a few precious jobs futureproofed against their unstoppable march. Yet AI is still in its infancy.

For businesses, it’s no longer just about using smart technology to gain ever more granular customer insights. It’s about using it to devise entire strategies and then adapt instantly when market conditions change. If an algorithm can run a factory more efficiently than an actual person, then it can probably handle marketing, accounts and ordering enough peanut butter cookies for the canteen.

Was Elon Musk correct in his assertion last November that it won’t be long before AI can perform just about any job, leaving us all to lead lives of leisure? Or had he been right six months earlier when he’d warned that intelligent machines might prioritize destroying humanity over stocking up cafeterias?

One thing futurists do seem to agree on is that the blurring line between human and robot resources in Industry 5.0 will require a new breed of leader and the biggest ever overhaul of boardrooms.

AI Takeover?

In truth, the dynamics of leadership teams have already been disrupted by the advent of big data and increasingly sentient machines. Critical decision-making and future planning are no longer strictly human domains, according to OpenGrowth’s Roshni Khatri, who argues that the right software can conjure up the optimum strategy to achieve any desired goal.


“[AI] reduces mistakes and improves decision accuracy by removing biases and emotions.”

- Roshni Khatri

But reaching such a nirvana, she points out, still requires humble Homo sapiens at the top who can transform the culture of analytics to ensure the data banks are spitting out the right insights.

That’s despite an AI@Work study that found two-thirds of workers would trust orders issued by a robot over those from their boss, and half have already shunned their manager and asked a computer for advice.

For Khatri, successful future leaders will be those who harness AI in smarter ways than their peers to do the following:

  • Locate previously hidden variations in massive data sets and combine AI tools more strategically.
  • Implement comprehensive automation to speed up data gathering.
  • Deploy algorithms with natural-language processing to gain even richer customer knowledge.
  • Utilize cutting-edge suggestion personalization for the enhanced service that customers now expect.

“AI has the capacity to identify patterns and complicated correlations that humans would miss,” she says. “It reduces mistakes and improves decision accuracy by removing biases and emotions.”

The Need for Speed

However, it doesn’t matter how accurate those decisions are if the human acting on them dithers or gets bogged down in red tape. The days of endlessly weighing up options are over.

“The advent of AI means strategic decisions have an ever-decreasing half-life,” Boston Consulting Group Managing Director François Candelon tells The CEO Magazine. “The goal now is to create organizations that can learn quickly as transformations need to take months instead of years.”



Candelon heads the company’s Tech & Biz Lab, which explores the impact of emerging technologies. He says CEOs will have three critical new functions:

  • Managing AI risks while maximizing adoption.
  • Aligning automation with human values.
  • Keeping a tight strategic focus to stay agile.

“Many CEOs assume that understanding the technology behind new innovations isn’t their domain, but that’s no longer true,” he explains. “They will face increasing pressure to explain and defend their use of AI to employees, customers, regulators and society at large.”

Ideas over Experience

The transition away from a predominantly flesh-and-blood workforce also changes the sort of executive best suited for the top job.

Leadership will be less about management and more about instinctively deploying the right technology, according to Kavita Ganesan, author of The Business Case for AI and Founder of AI strategy consultants Opinosis Analytics.


“Many CEOs assume that understanding the technology behind new innovations isn’t their domain, but that’s no longer true.”

- François Candelon

“Traditionally, CEOs have been MBAs or graduates who can grow businesses, but the leaders best able to transform their trajectory in the future will be those with the best ideas for innovation, regardless of educational background,” she tells The CEO Magazine.

“That’s what we’ve seen with Satya Nadella at Microsoft and Jeff Bezos at Amazon. Leaders will have to be highly creative, have a futuristic outlook and a keen intuition for customer needs – skills you can’t learn from an academic program.”

Ganesan also predicts that C-suites will increasingly include chief legal AI officers, chief algorithm officers and chief AI officers, fundamentally changing power dynamics and succession planning.

Shift in Focus

So with central processing units overseeing much of the day-to-day management and future policy, how exactly will CEOs while away all those empty hours? Before they reach for the golf clubs or book that corporate spa day, they should heed a recent study that warns that the rise of the machines doesn’t make workplace culture any less important. In fact, success may hinge not on whether your AI bot is flashier than your rival’s, but rather on how you synchronize your teams with their new digital colleagues.


“Leaders will have to be highly creative, have a futuristic outlook and a keen intuition for customer needs.”

- Kavita Ganesan

Researchers at the Institute of Applied Industrial Engineering and Ergonomics in Düsseldorf, Germany, found that senior executives will need to act as ‘shapers’ during the transition so that man, woman and machine share a common vision.

The implementation and use of AI must be human-centered, their report states. “Focus will shift to social competencies,” it says. “Increasingly, a supportive corporate culture is needed to make the introduction of AI successful.”

In other words, leave the technical stuff to the mainframe and concentrate on social competency and interpersonal nous to overlay the hyperscale data insights with wisdom.

Even in a not-so-distant Industry 8.0 future when we’re reporting to a board chaired by the corporate equivalent of Optimus Prime, AI will always play second fiddle to emotional intelligence. As that wise, albeit fictional, philosopher Albus Dumbledore said: “It’s our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”


AI Cyberthreats

When it comes to cybercrime, AI is a double-edged sword for CEOs. On the one hand, its algorithms can sniff out fraudulent behaviors and defend against security breaches, but on the other, it can be wielded in ever more sophisticated ways by the villains themselves.

And when a high-profile breach occurs, baying for the big boss’s blood can become deafening, especially if it turns out warnings were ignored or the resulting crisis management was bungled. Just ask the now-former CEOs of Equifax, Target and Austrian aerospace giant FACC.

Gartner predicts that 75 percent of CEOs will be held personally liable for breaches resulting from inadequate protections against AI.

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