We have all done it. You start surfing the web for a key piece of information, and suddenly, overwhelmed, you find yourself watching a cat video. Access to information used to be a source of power for a leader. In today’s data-infused world, having power means knowing what to focus attention on.
In the past, data played a supporting role, to inform decisions. Data has now moved up to a starring role, and the data itself now determines the course of action in many fields. Computer algorithms that can react to changes faster than any human are already managing most financial trading today. When data’s algorithmically derived results can remember, analyze, teach, design and make faster and often better decisions than humans, what should leaders focus their efforts on? What is the white truffle capability that sets leaders apart from the Roboapocalypse?
Data can spot an opportunity, but it takes passion and grit to drive the opportunity forward. Data may anticipate a slow-down in your business, but is not very good at taking you out for beer to commiserate. It may give you an accurate medical diagnosis but it will not show you any compassion. It can forecast the weather but not watch the sunset with you. Data will remember your birthday, but who will help you blow out the candles?
There is still an essentially human element of leadership, something that algorithms cannot yet emulate. That is, to inspire others. When employees are not just productive but inspired, that is when discretionary effort is released and organizations make quantum gains.
Inspirational leadership can be learned; it is not a genetic lottery win. The ‘heroic myth’ — that leadership is an innate characteristic — actually belittles the success of great leaders, for if they are simply born with the right stuff, then what is the value in their accomplishments?
An inspirational leader can be an antidote to what is stalling people’s momentum, giving people a sense of purpose and meaning to the daily drudge. Are people laying bricks or building a cathedral? If people can see obstacles as challenges that they can overcome, they are more likely to choose behaviors more befitting a hero than a victim. Martin Luther King used his “I have a dream” speech to inspire generations of African-Americans to change their story from “I have been oppressed” to “I have a dream”. Inspirational leadership — for now — remains a uniquely human capability, one that leaders should increasingly focus their attention on developing.
Data may be right, but it is not always fun to follow. After all, would you rather hang with Spock and his Vulcan buddies, or explore The Next Frontier with Kirk?