Leaders innovate to elevate

The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) is an exchange programme of the United States established in 2010 to expand the reach of the US international programmes and invest in the next generation of leaders. The seed planted by President Barack Obama then has metamorphosed into a giant tree with many branches and fruit benefiting thousands of Africans.

One of such fruit was the YALI Leadership Summit 2023 organised by YALI Network, Kwara State Chapter, on December 2, 2023 on the theme, “Innovate to Elevate: Building AI-Ready Leaders”, to which I was invited as Keynote Speaker.  As leadership is everything, from influence, as John Maxwell characterised it, and “a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humanness, courage and discipline”, as Chinese General Sun Tzu conceived it, to “love, excellence, action, discipline, example, responsibility, sacrifice, honesty, integrity and planning” as I construe it, there is no over-emphasising the significance of leadership to making and marring organisations and societies.

Some 40 years ago, Chinua Achebe summarised the trouble with Nigeria as “simply and squarely a failure of leadership”, adding that “the Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenges of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.” In other words, leadership is so crucial that if it is right, every other thing will be all right as it is the soul of the society.  

Three months ago, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu acknowledged the leadership crisis in Nigeria when he spoke at the G-20 summit in India. He said he vied for his current office in order to end poor leadership in Nigeria. He posited, “We are not poor in knowledge. We are not poor in human resources. We are only poor in management and leadership, and that is why I ran for president, to help us mould the soul of our country in the right direction.”

On many occasions, to lead is to innovate and to innovate is to elevate. There are many leadership styles though one can change one’s style at any moment to achieve specific goals. As everyone is a real or potential leader, and organisations, societies and countries have been elevated or liberated and relegated or doomed on account of their leaders, it is desirable to align oneself with the appropriate leadership style suitable for every cause or course.

Eight leadership styles are the transactional (where the leader establishes reward and penalty system in a setting and sets clearly defined expectations), the transformational (where the leader is open to change and motivates the followers to innovate or bring up new ideas), the servant (where the leader invests energy and resources in elevating and developing people, building their trust and boosting their morale) and the democratic (where team members are actively involved in the decision-making process with the leader using participatory methods).

Others are the autocratic (where directive approach is used and the leader sets out what is to be done while also prescribing how it is to be done), the bureaucratic (where the leader presents his list of responsibilities and clearly defined structures, rules and systems to many people and take decisions) the laissez-faire (the leader provides the environment and steps back to let followers make decisions and solve problems) and the charismatic (where the leader uses personal charm and communication skills to unite team members around a common cause).

Since all innovation is about applying new processes, introducing new techniques and generating new ideas to create new value, it is also what leadership requires especially in this new age of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Itself a product of innovation, AI is simply the ability of a digital device or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks ordinarily associated with humans.  It is about developing systems with the intellectual capacity of humans, such as the ability to discover meaning, generalise or learn from past experience, as Encyclopedia Britannica puts it.

With the innovative disruption brought about by AI, from chatbots (like CHAT GBT) to other tools (for machine learning models, content creation, text enhancement, image generation, etc.), the right attitude to AI is to embrace it ethically. Leaders cannot afford to ignore AI and they have to leverage it to innovate and thereby elevate and empower. A leader that will be AI-ready will equip himself with clear goals, good documentation, accountability and alignment, prioritisation, automation and data.

To cultivate AI-ready leaders, the integration of people, processes and platforms is highly desirable. Then, ethics is crucial to ensure that AI respects human rights and dignity, protects the environment and social wellbeing and prevents potential harms such as bias, discrimination, privacy violation, security breaches, manipulation, deception, fraud, abuse and misuse. Ethics ensures that AI is not used for evil purposes.