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Can Machines Teach Us to Be Better Leaders?

Reviewing the results of my first 360-degree assessment was an eye-opening experience in my leadership journey. It was 2006, and I was president and COO of Prologis, but I still had plenty to learn about leadership. The assessment brought me face-to-face with the gaps between how I saw myself and how others saw me. My self-awareness took a giant leap forward, and it spurred me to make some meaningful changes that I like to think improved my leadership.

I will always appreciate and count on face-to-face conversations with real people for advice and feedback about my leadership. There are some things we learn only from experiencing genuine human relationships. But technology also has a lot to offer, and, in fact, it is playing a bigger role than ever in how we learn about and improve our leadership.

A modern 360-degree assessment uses technology to compile and sort opinions around various leadership competencies, but the science of artificial intelligence and machine learning is taking us far beyond the benefits of a digitally delivered assessment. Today’s technologies actually can give us unbiased data, analysis, and training.

Some companies already are using artificial intelligence by offering virtual reality simulations that give managers practice with difficult conversations like firing an employee. You put on a headset and magically see the employee you need to fire. What you say to him triggers programmed responses, and you must respond well to navigate a conversation that ends well.

Researchers also are using sophisticated computer programs to evaluate communication styles and then draw correlations between those styles and the performance outcomes of a leader’s company.

A team of academics – two from Harvard Business School and two from Columbia Business School – recently did this and wrote about it in a paper that’s soon to be published in the Strategic Management Journal. They took 130 existing videos of business leaders that were recorded for an oral history project called Creating Emerging Markets and used machine-learning techniques to analyze the CEOs words and body language, as well as how well they consistently they stayed on topic. Among other things, the technology analyzed the leaders’ facial expressions in relation to eight emotions: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, neutral, sadness, and surprise.

Five communications styles emerged from the data:

Excitable – marked by positive language and a range of facial expressions

Stern – marked by anger, contempt, disgust, and a fair amount of neutral expressions

Rambling – marked by happy and contemptuous facial expressions and an inability to stay on the topic being discussed

Dramatic – marked by a range of expressions

Melancholy – marked by sadness and negativity

The researchers then looked at the communications styles in light of things like organizational financial success or merger and acquisition activity.

The results, as the authors pointed out, aren’t definitive, but they do show where we’re heading in how we study and measure leadership effectiveness, especially when it comes to effective communication. It won’t be long before leaders can put video or audio samples of their communication through a program and get an objective, detailed report on their strengths and weaknesses, along with research-based advice on how to improve.

In the meantime, we can look at those five communication styles and do some self-evaluating about where we are and where we want to be. And, of course, we can always ask a few real people we trust what they think, as well.

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  1. Candid

    Although this seems still early development, it would be amazing to have this level of training and support available for CEOs to develop something that is so intangible as communication skills. It will open a whole new set of opportunities for us all to strengthen the soft skills in a very data-based way.

    In the first day of my first Organizational Behavior class in grad school the professor told us that good management skills could be learned and developed; and while there was some inherent “natural leadership”, it was more likely good training. Just like athletes on a field, there are people with natural talent and abilities but hard work and practice will outperform lazy talent.

    It has always amazed me that the professional on the sport fields put so much into every aspect of their game, refining every last motion, until it is instinctive, but in the business field we sometimes can’t apply the same rigor to managing our talent or refining our communication skills as we do to understanding our financials or sales pipeline – mainly because the more intangibles aspects of leading a company are so subjective and it is hard to quantify “great”.

    I’m excited at the possibilities on this front.

    Reply to Candid

    1. Walt Rakowich

      Great thoughts, Candid. I’d say to, it has to begin with a willingness to learn from the beginning, whether the tools are old-fashioned paper or artificial intelligence.

      Reply to Walt Rakowich

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