Navigating the future: how AI, continuous learning, and experimental thinking are shaping leadership in 2024

To thrive in the digital age, leaders must understand the intricacies of technology and leverage digital tools to further organisational objectives.
  • Leadership in the age of generative AI
  • Combining human intuition with artificial intelligence
  • Acquiring new knowledge is key to leadership development
  • Adopting an experimentation mindset

Where once the corporate world was a bastion of rigid hierarchies and top-down decision making, today’s organisations demand a more agile and inclusive approach to leadership. This shift is not just a fleeting trend but a fundamental change in response to the dizzying pace of technological advancement that is redefining every aspect of how organisations operate and engage with their stakeholders. In the industrial era, predictability and standardisation were the cornerstones of business success, and leadership models reflected this reality, prioritising control, stability, and efficiency. These traditional leadership styles — authoritative and hierarchical — aligned well with the needs of the time. But in the current digital age, where innovation is relentless and disruption the new norm, such models have become outdated, even counterproductive.

The 21st-century leader must navigate an ever-shifting technological landscape where globalisation is not just a buzzword but a daily reality. The new leadership paradigms are characterised by flexibility, collaboration, and participation, underpinned by a visionary outlook. To thrive, leaders must not only understand the intricacies of technology but also leverage digital tools strategically to further organisational objectives. This new breed of leadership is not just about staying current with tech trends — it’s about embedding a culture of continuous learning and adaptability at the heart of the enterprise. This article will look at how leadership is evolving in the digital age. We’ll explore the new skills and mindsets that leaders need to succeed and how they can stay ahead in a world where the next big tech breakthrough is always just around the corner.

“The role of managers in the burgeoning societal transformation involving AI cannot be overstated”.

Nicholas Berente of the University of Notre Dame

Leadership in the age of generative AI

Generative AI is set to have a profound impact on the business world, presenting unprecedented opportunities that could redefine a wide range of industries. At the same time, it also brings a wave of concern among the workforce. Many employees are worried that AI might make their roles redundant or challenge their ability to compete in an increasingly tech-driven environment. There’s also palpable anxiety about privacy, with workers uneasy about AI possibly scrutinising their performance or affecting their career progression behind the scenes. Beyond personal worries, there’s a broader ethical debate: Are we using AI responsibly? How transparent are we being with our customers about our use of this technology? Leaders across all facets of business — from product development to customer service — need to carefully consider these ethical aspects. In the midst of these challenges, the trust that employees have in their leaders is more critical than ever. It is essential for those at the helm to navigate these complex issues thoughtfully and transparently, ensuring that the path forward is marked by ethical stewardship and clear communication.

“The role of managers in the burgeoning societal transformation involving AI cannot be overstated”, says Nicholas Berente of the University of Notre Dame. “It is the managers that make all key decisions about AI. They oversee the development and implementation of AI-based systems, managers use them in their decision making, leverage them to target customers, and monitor and adjust the decisions, processes, and routines that appropriate AI. Managers allocate resources, oversee AI projects, and govern the organisations that are shaping the future”. Although it’s true that the CEO, CIO, or head of engineering is typically at the helm of AI efforts, it’s crucial that they also include other members of the team in the process. “Employees from various departments should collaborate together, building internal use cases to accelerate product capabilities for customers”, adds Naveen Zutshi, the CIO of Databricks. “Teams from the business side of the organisation can work with engineers, those under the CIO, and IT to build internal large language models that improve business processes in all departments”.

Combining human intuition with artificial intelligence

The retailer River Island is one of the many companies around the world that have already begun experimenting with ChatGPT. “I think we are probably in a similar place to lots of people”, says Adam Warne, the company’s CIO. “We’re using it to generate content ideas, whether it’s blog posts, marketing posts, or product descriptions. But we’re not putting it into a production environment”. While he believes that generative AI does have enormous potential, Warne is somewhat hesitant to incorporate it into customer-facing services just yet, which is why he is making sure that its output is always reviewed by a human before it reaches the customer. However, he is convinced that it’s only a matter of time before the technology gets there. “I think the speed at which it’s come to market and is developing means that everybody should be keeping an eye on it”, he adds. “It’s still a way off being mainstream, but I think it’s going to be production-ready very, very quickly”. While it may sound counterintuitive to combine human intuition with artificial intelligence, the two are not actually mutually exclusive. In fact, they are two complementary sources of knowledge that — when balanced correctly — can help leaders make better-informed decisions and assess the implications and validity of those decisions through a more objective lens.

This means that AI should not be viewed as something that can replace human intelligence, only augment it. In this digital age, trust and respect cannot be built without essential human qualities like empathy, and neither can a positive, inclusive culture. It is, therefore, incumbent upon leaders to ensure that AI is implemented ethically and in a way that respects the values and rights of their stakeholders. To achieve this, they need to acquire relevant knowledge and skills that will enable them to stay on top of developments in the field of AI. They also need to foster a culture of innovation where teams will feel empowered and motivated to experiment with AI and where their achievements will be recognised and rewarded accordingly. Finally, they need to promote a symbiotic relationship between humans and AI while recognising the strengths and weaknesses of each. They need to ensure that humans understand that AI is not there to replace them but to enhance their capabilities and help them be more effective at what they do. One way to achieve this is to adopt a human-centric approach to AI, where the principles of human autonomy, dignity, and rights are never brought into question.

Acquiring new knowledge is key to leadership development

But what exactly does it take to be an effective leader in the digital age? First, you need to take an inward look and identify your own strengths, as well as areas you need to improve. At the heart of this introspective process is self-awareness, which serves as a vital tool for leaders to refine their abilities for their own benefit and that of their organisations. One standout example of this principle in action is Google’s Project Oxygen, which uses a mechanism called the Upward Feedback Survey to provide managers with direct feedback related to their behaviours and compare their performance to top-performing leaders at the company. This way, leaders can obtain valuable insights into where their own strengths and weaknesses lie, which they can then use to find the resources and training to address those deficiencies in a more targeted manner. It’s important to point out that this isn’t about putting their shortcomings under the spotlight but about helping them become more effective leaders. This approach isn’t limited to Google and can benefit any organisation looking to improve its leadership. It provides a framework within which leaders can consciously undertake personal development, crafting a plan of action to refine specific skills. This strategic personal advancement ensures leaders evolve in meaningful ways, ultimately elevating their leadership effectiveness and contributing positively to their organisational culture.

The process of leadership development is intricately linked to the acquisition of knowledge — a principle that IBM has embraced with its Basic Blue for IBM Leaders programme. Through this initiative, IBM provides managers with a digital learning environment where they can immerse themselves in the essentials of leadership. The programme uses interactive simulations and lessons to ensure that emerging leaders have a solid understanding of key concepts, preparing them to apply this knowledge with confidence in their future roles. Similarly, PepsiCo incorporates this ethos within its Performance with Purpose philosophy, which seamlessly integrates into its leadership development initiatives. PepsiCo University’s Global Leadership Development Program advances this mission by providing a blend of experiential learning through hands-on assignments, collaborative projects, and tasks that reflect the nuances of the current business landscape. Both IBM and PepsiCo are great examples of companies that use a thoughtful blend of theory and practice in their leadership development programmes. This enables them to nurture leaders who are not just knowledgeable but also know how to apply that knowledge in the real world and adapt quickly to evolving market complexities.

Valerie Chan, talent development team lead at the software company Datadog, points out that a growing number of leaders are starting to recognise the importance of learning. “For a long time, and still today, learning and development has been thought of as a ‘nice to have’, but I think business leaders are seeing the value of investing in their workforce beyond onboarding and basic technical training”, she says. “Oftentimes, learning and development can feel like something that takes away from an employee’s productivity in the moment. Why spend time on training when I can use that time to finish a project or take a call with a client? What I try to help our people realise is that spending that time on developing a new skill will help them be more effective in their role in the future”. However, she believes that there is still a lot of room for improvement in this area. “Too many times I see organisations wanting to develop their people to enhance performance, lower attrition rates, and so on; then when it comes time to ‘put their money where their mouth is’ by adding headcount or investing in learning technology, it isn’t in the budget”, adds Chan. “Make learning a priority and listen to your workforce, and especially to your leaders on the ground who see the learning needs and skill gaps firsthand. By doing so, you are showing your people that your company is a place where they can continue to grow and will be supported through their career”.

“When set up and executed properly, the process of experimentation can become a competitive advantage for many organisations and an immediate boost for employee engagement and morale”.

Carlos Oliveira, the co-founder and principal of adaptiveX

Ignite a spark of inspiration by adopting an experimentation mindset

Now, let’s consider the following question: How do leaders who experiment and take risks contribute to continued advancement and growth within their organisation? An experimental mindset transcends the comfort of established routines, embracing uncertainty and the potential for innovation. It is a mindset that not only acknowledges the necessity of risk-taking and experimentation for effective leadership but also recognises failures as critical milestones in the learning journey. Individuals who embody this mindset are not deterred by the prospect of failure; instead, they perceive it as a fertile ground for growth and knowledge. They approach their responsibilities proactively, always striving to improve — be it through altering the status quo of a meeting agenda, streamlining a complex report, or refining the nuances of dialogue within their team.

The essence of this mindset lies in the continuous cycle of action and reflection: to try something, to reflect on it, to learn from the experience, and to try once more. In practice, this approach involves constantly looking for solid evidence to back up your methods and being ready to make changes when outcomes deviate from expectations. While this path is inevitably marked by frequent setbacks, the rare breakthroughs not only make up for them but can lead to great advances. “When set up and executed properly, the process of experimentation can become a competitive advantage for many organisations and an immediate boost for employee engagement and morale”, says Carlos Oliveira, the cofounder and principal of adaptiveX, an innovation and design sprint agency.

Nurturing a culture of innovation

When leaders prioritise experimentation, they lay the foundation for a culture that thrives on innovation. They inspire their teams by encouraging trial and error, offering tools and room for exploration, and demonstrating a commitment to taking calculated risks. This leadership approach sends a powerful message: it is safe — and indeed, expected — to try new ways of doing things instead of just sticking to the usual methods. Practically, it means encouraging team members to assess current processes and suggest and test new ideas without fearing failure. It’s about shifting from fearing change to embracing it as a path to progress. Leaders who promote this way of thinking also know how important it is to work with people outside of their own teams. They encourage interaction between different departments, breaking down the walls that separate parts of the organisation. This helps create a more connected environment where new and creative ideas can grow from diverse perspectives and expertise.

“Controlled experimentation has revolutionised the way all companies operate their businesses and how managers make decisions”, says Harvard Business School Professor and author Stefan Thomke. According to Thomke, companies shouldn’t quantify the value of outcomes solely through financial metrics but embrace the unexpected in business experiments. He advocates for a paradigm shift where ‘failures’ are reframed as a spectrum of opportunities rather than regrettable missteps. “When firms adopt this mindset, curiosity will prevail. Many organisations are too conservative about the nature and amount of experimentation,” he adds, noting how integral inquisitiveness is in this instance. “Overemphasising the importance of successful experiments may inadvertently encourage employees to focus on familiar solutions, or those that they already know will work, and avoid testing ideas that they fear might fail”.

Ricardo Semler, the CEO of the Brazilian company Semco Partners, for instance, has implemented a democratic workplace where employees choose their own roles, salaries, and even their managers in some cases. This level of workplace experimentation led to a more engaged and productive workforce and helped the company to prosper. “I believe in responsibility but not in pyramidal hierarchy”, says Semler. “I think that strategic planning and vision are often barriers to success. I dispute the value of growth. I don’t think a company’s success can be measured in numbers, since the numbers ignore what the end user really thinks of the product and what the people who produce it really think of the company. I question the supremacy of talent, too much of which is as bad as too little. I’m not sure I believe that control is either expedient or desirable”.

Closing thoughts

Leadership in the digital age requires a combination of adaptability, inclusivity, and technological literacy. Modern leaders must champion ethical technology use, ensuring it augments human skills rather than replacing them. This balance between human creativity and AI’s data-driven insights is critical for the symbiotic growth of both. The rapid pace of technological change necessitates leaders who are lifelong learners, equipped with a profound sense of self-awareness and a commitment to continuous learning. Moreover, leaders are expected to cultivate an organisational culture that embraces experimentation, where innovation is encouraged, and the lessons from setbacks are valued. Embracing risk and learning from failure are now seen as integral to driving progress and staying competitive. The question we are left to ponder is this: In a world where AI and human intelligence are increasingly interwoven, how do we each contribute to a future that respects and amplifies the best qualities of both? How do we ensure that we look back on this pivotal era not as the time when human relevance waned, but as the age when we achieved incredible things together?

Schedule your free, inspiring session with our expert futurists.


Related updates

This site is registered on as a development site.