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ALMJ

Human-centric leadership in the age of AI

For legal organisations to succeed in the age of AI, they will need human-centric leaders who provide a platform that enables people and performance to thrive, writes Daljit Singh.

The age of AI will transform entire industries, including the professions. It is expected to generate greater business value through task automation, and the augmentation and amplification of human capabilities through human and machine collaboration.

As the workforce of the future will be a blend of human talent and AI capabilities, successful organisations will strongly focus on both sets of capabilities to gain a competitive edge. As AI rapidly advances, we also need to build human capability and leadership, to help people thrive, and also elevate their contribution in the age of AI.

Building human capability in the age of AI was explored in two of my earlier articles in this journal, so the focus here is on the leadership required for success in the age of AI.

Human-centric vs traditional leadership

The traditional model of leadership prevalent in most organisations (including professional services) is characterised by a strong focus on productivity, performance, and profits, with a tendency to focus on the short term rather than the long term. People are primarily seen as ’resources’ to manage for maximising financial returns and essentially as a means to an end of achieving organisational objectives.

Unsurprisingly, the traditional model of leadership is associated with lower levels of employee engagement and well-being, and higher rates of attrition. It would be reasonable to conclude that this form of leadership is well represented in the legal profession given the reported prevalence of bullying, harassment, burn-out and poor well-being, as noted by the reports of some national legal associations and the International Bar Association.

Human-centric leadership places people at the very heart of the organisation rather than simply as ’resources’ for leverage. It is focused on providing people with optimal opportunities, encouragement, and support to become the best that they can be, enabling organisations to realise the full potential of their people while ensuring greater well-being. It also does not subscribe to the false trade-off of having to choose between people and profit.

Benefits of human-centric leadership

There is robust evidence that human-centric leadership works in enabling both people and performance to thrive.

Several sources for this evidence are noted in the references, including research by Gartner and Professor Christine Porath, a leading researcher in human-centric workplaces.

Research demonstrates that the benefits of human-centric leadership include the following:

  • development of a positive work culture
  • enhanced diversity and inclusion
  • greater well-being
  • higher engagement scores
  • improved talent attraction and retention, and
  • higher performance, including improved client service and financial results.

Qualities of human-centric leaders

Gartner’s research has identified the following three key qualities of human-centric leaders:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Empathy
  3. Adaptivity.

Gartner reported that only 29% of their survey respondents indicated that their leaders demonstrated these qualities, and that while these qualities may have been important in the past, these will become increasingly non-negotiable in the new talent landscape.

These key qualities are described below, followed by my suggestions of exemplary leadership actions, and comments on the criticality of these qualities in the age of AI.

  1. Authenticity

Gartner defined authenticity as acting with purpose and enabling true self-expression, for both leaders and their teams.

Exemplary leadership actions include:

  • aligning behaviour with organisational and personal purpose and values, including core universal values of compassion, respect, accountability, fairness, and truth, and willing to be vulnerable. Purposeful and values driven behaviour promotes integrity.
  • openly sharing information about organisational, team and individual goals, challenges, and performance. This promotes transparency and honesty and builds greater trust.
  • providing the opportunities for, and encouraging people, to openly express their ideas and concerns. This promotes inclusiveness, diverse thinking, better solutions, and signals that leaders value the unique contributions of all of their people.

Demonstrating and enabling authenticity creates a psychologically safe environment where people can express themselves without fear. This environment will be essential in fostering greater engagement, capability development, performance, and innovation in the age of AI.

  1. Empathy

Gartner defined empathy as showing genuine care, respect, and concern for employees including their well-being.

Exemplary leadership actions include:

  • engaging in individual conversations with people to better understand their aspirations, challenges, and state of well-being. This dialogue enables leaders to better support their people to have more fulfilling careers and thrive at work.
  • helping to promote greater well-being (e.g. the setting of work boundaries) and addressing any concerns (e.g. excessive workload, bullying). This shows that leaders care about the well-being of their people, and not just their economic value.
  • providing regular recognition, coaching and feedback to express appreciation and encourage and support people to grow and become the best that they can be. This is critical to respond to the intrinsic human need for ongoing recognition and growth.

Demonstrating empathy will help people feel genuinely cared for and respected. Empathy helps to build a more caring, positive, and high-performance culture, which will be critical for attracting, developing, and retaining the best talent in the age of AI.

  1. Adaptivity

Gartner defined adaptivity as enabling flexibility and support that fits team members’ unique needs.

Exemplary leadership actions include:

  • being open to flexible working, such as hybrid work and flexible work schedules, to help accommodate the individual needs of people outside of work. This demonstrates that leaders care about and will support their people in having quality of life.
  • supporting people to develop based on their unique strengths and needs. For example, being mindful in assigning projects whether these are more developmental, stretching, or ‘standard’ (neither stretching nor developmental) for the individual.
  • seeking feedback to learn and become more responsive to individual needs. For example, using feedback to vary coaching style rather than using the same approach for all, regardless of differences in coachee experience and confidence levels.

Demonstrating adaptivity ensures that leaders better support the unique needs of their people. Adaptivity meets the growing expectation for more flexibility and support at work and will ensure greater personalisation of the employee experience in the age of AI.

The three leadership qualities are intertwined and reinforce each other in practice. Let us take the example of an effective coaching conversation. The leader-coach is authentic throughout the conversation, is empathetic to the coachee as the conversation unfolds, and is continuously learning so they can be adaptive in supporting the coachee. Role-modelling by the coach helps the coachee to experience these qualities, and also adopt them.

Human-centred workplaces

These three leadership qualities help to create human-centred workplaces where both people and performance thrive.

Christine Porath outlined the following characteristics of these workplaces:

  • high degree of transparency of information in the organisation
  • empowerment through decision-making discretion and accountable autonomy
  • a civil culture with a high degree of respect and the fostering of positive relationships
  • promotion of diversity and inclusion
  • performance and development feedback that enables growth
  • strong sense of meaning and purpose in work
  • emphasis on well-being.

As noted earlier, these workplaces enable higher levels of performance, including client service, as people become the best that they can be. In my experience, clients would also value authenticity, empathy and adaptivity being demonstrated by their advisors. Accordingly, strengthening these qualities will lead to stronger client relationships.

How to foster human-centric leadership

Human-centric leadership can be fostered by focusing on mindsets, development, and reinforcing talent practices.

  1. Mindsets

The traditional approach to gaining support from leaders for change is to present the business case for a change. However, this is not sufficient as there is often a need to shift prevailing mindsets (beliefs and assumptions).

This requires engaging with leaders to explore their mindsets and identify any potential barriers in adopting human-centric leadership behaviours.

Here are two related sets of beliefs and assumptions that I have observed:
 

1. Leaders must be tough with people to ensure high performance.

This belief assumes that people have low intrinsic motivation to perform and therefore must be strongly directed and managed. This belief becomes self-fulfilling as some people become demotivated as they experience a lack of autonomy and growth. Human-centric leadership creates the ideal environment for intrinsic motivation to thrive.

2. Human-centric leadership means becoming soft on performance.

This belief assumes that values like empathy and accountability for performance are inherently incompatible. However, research findings indicate that high levels of empathy and accountability are compatible and lead to higher and more sustainable levels of performance. Once again, it is about helping both people and performance to thrive.

However, while a group of leaders may share common beliefs about human-centric leadership, there may also be individual differences to address. How to shift mindsets is discussed in the next section.

  1. Development

Developing human-centric leadership should focus on both mindset and behavioural change.

Vertical development is a process that helps to facilitate mindset change. ‘Vertical Growth’ by Bunting and Lemieux, is an excellent guide to this process that encourages leaders to become more self-aware and committed to personal change. This includes helping leaders to identify and challenge their mindsets and aligning their behaviours to their highest aspirations and values. It includes diagnostic tools, practices, and case studies. An experienced vertical growth practitioner should facilitate this process.

The second aspect of development is focussed on ‘the how’, or the skills required to demonstrate human-centric behaviours. This should include behavioural examples, interactive discussions, and practice exercises, alongside coaching and feedback. An experienced learning and development practitioner should facilitate this skills development process. The vertical development process should precede any required skills development to ensure that there is openness to learning the skills and applying them.

I have found in my leadership development work, as have other leadership development specialists, that vertical development is the key for unlocking leadership transformation. Successful legal organisations in the age of AI will become increasingly adept in using these innovative practices to develop their leaders.

  1. Reinforcing talent practices

Human-centric leadership is also fostered through reinforcing talent practices that ensure that mindset and behavioural changes are encouraged, supported, and sustained.

These practices are briefly described below:

  1. Set clear expectations for leaders to use the human-centric qualities in their interactions with their people, for example, in having individual talent conversations. and providing coaching and feedback.
  2. Ensure role-modelling by the top leadership team and make it a regular practice for them to engage in reflection as to whether their behaviours are in alignment with the qualities.
  3. Share stories of the human-centric qualities in action to prompt interest, discussion, and learning. Stories should discuss different situations, challenges, successes, and key reflections.
  4. Gather and process employee feedback from multiple sources on the leadership qualities (AI can assist here, as discussed in The Economist article in the references). Share the learnings, celebrate progress, and commit to improvements.
  5. Ensure that human-centric leadership qualities are included in the formal process for recognising and assessing leader performance, and that the outcomes are linked to reward.

Conclusion

Legal organisations will need human-centric leaders to achieve success in the age of AI, with these leaders demonstrating strength in authenticity, empathy, and adaptivity.

Human-centric leadership can be fostered by focusing on leader mindsets, skills development, and reinforcing talent practices that will encourage, support, and sustain mindset and behavioural change.

Human-centric leaders will help the age of AI also become the age of greater leadership authenticity, empathy, and adaptivity, enabling both people and performance to thrive.

Daljit Singh is the Principal of Transforming Talent and a Teaching Fellow at the College of Law, where he teaches two subjects in the Master of Legal Business – Workforce of the Future and Leadership. Daljit has also held senior talent management and leadership development roles at KPMG and Baker McKenzie.

References