Mar 13, 2024, 06:27AM

The Work of Leadership

Good workers still have a place in the economy, but let’s hurry up and hand the C-suite roles to AI.

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In a world where shadows cling to the corners of our most revered institutions, there exists a silent acknowledgment, an unspoken truth veiled in the velvet darkness of technological advancement: Generative AI, that enigmatic force shrouded in marketing bullshit and get-rich-quick scheming, could infiltrate our boardrooms and Oval Offices with an ease that borders on the sinister.

This isn't a tale of triumph, a narrative where machines ascend to the pinnacle of intellectual achievement. This is a story drenched in the jet-black ink of cynicism, where these cushy roles long lauded for their strategic value—CEO, pope, university president, senator, VP of talent, “imagineering” lead, public intellectual, congressman, keynote speaker—are unmasked as hollow vestibules of power, requiring nothing but a stream of thinkable thoughts, clichés, and rare flickers of shopworn insight borrowed from decades-old TED talks.

In the future I’m envisioning, generative AI doesn't just fulfill these roles; it epitomizes the sheer redundancy and superficiality that these positions have come to represent. I don’t want to extol the virtues of artificial intelligence, but rather to cast a spotlight on the minimal substance these so-called strategic roles demand. These aren’t positions of action, innovation, or meaningful leadership; they’re the shadows where the organization hides its most ineffectual networkers and headshot beauties, akin to Principal Skinner’s desperate attempt to conceal Bart and the other troublesome students from Superintendent (“Super Nintendo,” to young, moronic Ralph Wiggum) Chalmers. In this allegory, the bad boys of Springfield Elementary are the metaphoric stand-ins for workers tucked away in high-profile sinecures where their capacity for damage is mitigated by their lack of real influence or power.

What does it say about our societal pillars, our bastions of leadership and vision, when the essence of their contribution can be distilled and replicated—improved upon!—by lines of code and algorithms? This isn't some moonshot proposition for the far-off future; it's a current indictment of the empty spectacle that leadership has become (and likely always has been). Generative AI, with its capacity to churn out endless streams of palatable banalities, is perfectly suited to step into these roles. Not because it aspires to or because it represents an evolution of capability, but because it reflects the shallow depths at which these positions currently operate.

The banality of leadership, the strategic void cloaked under the guise of "vision" and "innovation," has become painfully evident in this era of technological mimicry. The roles once heralded by journalists and publicists (they’re essentially the same thing, and again, always have been) as the epitome of strategic insight and creative foresight—ranging from the boardrooms of multinational corporations to the halls of academia and beyond—are laid bare by the relentless march of generative AI. This silent usurper, armed with nothing more than algorithms and all the words that are fit to type, has long surpassed the creative output demanded of holders of these esteemed positions. It’s a grim testament to the superficiality that has seeped into the bedrock of our leadership and strategic planning.

In the corridors of power, where strategic forecasts about insipid nonsense like “the future of work” are peddled like cheap Chinese commodities on Amazon, the introduction of AI as a cliché-spewing Ted-Sorensen-on-demand casts a long shadow over the authenticity of human creativity and ingenuity. The term "imagineering," once intended by some idiot marketer to be a dazzling fusion of imagination and engineering, symbolizing the pinnacle of human creativity and innovation, has now found its level in the era of AI replicants. These digital entities, every bit as devoid of creativity as our soft-skulled potentates, highlight the mechanical nature of what the ink-stained wretches of the mainstream media have urged us to celebrate as visionary (remember, noted “hollow man” Barack Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize merely for prevailing in an election!).

I don’t intend any of the above as a critique, but rather as a mirror reflecting the empty grandeur with which we've endowed positions of strategic leadership. The truth is that the routine, the mundane, and the predictable have long been cornerstones of roles that could, by their means of their access to the “bully pulpit,” challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of human potential and understanding. Instead, we find ourselves entrapped in a cycle of recycled bad ideas and repackaged just-so strategies, all packaged and sold to us as innovation and insight coming down from God (or Jobs, which is more or less the same thing).

What does it say about the state of our leadership when the calculated outputs of an algorithm can so easily replicate its functions? It points to the erosion of genuine vision and leadership in favor of performative gestures and hollow rhetoric—we’re not getting another Thomas Edison or Theodore Roosevelt out of this cookie-cutter lot. Roles that could serve as the driving force behind societal progress and innovation have been reduced to mere figureheads, their influence diluted by the sheer fecklessness of their contributions.

Reliance on generative AI to fill the void left by human leaders doesn’t signify a leap forward but a profound loss—a loss of the uniquely human qualities of creativity, empathy, and the intuitive grasp of complexity that no algorithm can replicate. We abandoned those long ago, as pressures to succeed within institutions began the process of turning perfectly serviceable humans into mini-AIs clad in decaying skinsuits. A transition towards AI-mediated leadership and strategy, with all the insipid decisions and outcomes that will entail, might even compel us to reevaluate and reinvent the essence of what it means to lead and to strategize in a world teetering on the brink of a new “dark ages of the mind.”

The challenge for those of us who still believe in the humanzee—with his haphazardly-evolved mind that requires less energy than an entire nuclear power plant to string together sentences and work sums—lies in reclaiming the lost art of leadership and strategic innovation from the clutches of automation and artificiality. Consider this a call to action for those in positions of power to rekindle the flames of authentic vision, to move beyond the safety of careful clichés and thinkable thoughts to forge new paths that are worthy of the human spirit's capacity for ingenuity and innovation. Only then can we hope to escape the shadow of AI's mimicry and restore the vibrancy and depth to the roles that shape our future.

Here, we’re confronted with the choice between accepting the comfort of AI's banal replication or embracing the tortuous journey that might result in real innovation and leadership. The path forward is fraught with uncertainty, but it’s also ripe with the potential for rediscovery and renewal. As we stand at this crossroads—we humanzees are always coming to crossroads, aren’t we?—one loaded question remains: Will we settle for the shadow of leadership that AI offers, either from our current overlords or the server-based intelligences that could cheaply supplant them, or will we strive to reclaim the substance and significance of true strategic vision and imagination? On this reading, the true role of generative AI is not to lead but to lay bare the facade, challenging us to demand more from ourselves and others. We’re only human—but that’s all the more reason not to settle for less. 


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