Part of the research I did to complete my Doctorate of Business Administration was looking at the ways a leader’s view of the future impacted their leadership style. It was very clear that the most successful leaders all seemed to share a more positive outlook on the future, and that they took an understanding of future trends seriously. Of course, it’s impossible to predict the future, especially in times of disruptive change, but the best leaders in the world at least make the attempt to identify key disruptive forces and prepare themselves and their teams for change.
I was amazed this past week at comments from Steve Mnuchin, the current US Treasury Secretary, who stated that technology that could displace jobs was “50 to 100 more years” away and that the issue is “not even on my radar screen.” This was in an interview with a new news website Axios (the section I’m referring to starts at about 45 minutes). The context was about President Trump’s trade agenda and bringing back manufacturing jobs. I find this view of the future frankly unbelievable. The evidence to the contrary seems overwhelming.
I want to try and avoid political commentary here, but that’s pretty much impossible. Steve Mnuchin was the CIO at Goldman Sachs, so I can only believe that he is taking a party line here, rather than talking from his own experience or beliefs. Goldman recently announced that they’ve removed almost all of their traders and replaced them with machines and software developers. Robo-trading and FinTech must have been part of his life at Goldman. As Business Insider said last year, Goldman is now a tech company that happens to specialise in banking. And they’re not the only ones.
So, maybe the real story here is that Trump’s style of leadership is based on rhetoric and empty promises of taking America’s manufacturing and primary industries back to the “glory days” of the 1950s and 60s. He has promised to get coal miners back down the mines, for example. When leaders stop looking properly at the future, they will fail. When leaders try and create a false narrative of the future to support a protection of their current reality, they will fail.
But let’s take Mnuchin at face value for a moment. Steve said that machines taking over many jobs is 50 to 100 years away. He went on to clarify just a bit noting that he doesn’t think self-driving cars use artificial intelligence because “that’s computers and using real technology we have today.” This actually didn’t clarify really – it’s confusing and shows a rather short-sighted and outdated understanding of machine learning and AI. He said that he is thinking more about actual robots, like Star Wars’ R2-D2, taking people’s actual jobs.
Besides the fact that there are in fact actual robots you can already own (see this 15 minute video for examples) and that companies like Google are pushing really hard at human replacing robots (see Handle from Boston Dynamics here), this is not what “technology taking your jobs” actually means. Machine Learning, Artifical Intelligence, Algorithms and Big Data might all sound like cliches and buzzwords, but they’re the heart of the emerging digital revolution. They might not be “robots” in a Hollywood vision of them (Mnuchin moved from Goldman to Hollywood as a movie producer, so may be looking at this through that lense).
I’m not going to defend or explain these terms here, nor get into the details of Mnuchin really meant – and should have said – when he talked about “robots”. My point is about leaders who don’t understand these issues, and the impact their lack of understanding will have on their businesses. It will be devastating. The problem is that this lack of tech awareness is rife amongst senior executives. Many of them have no personal social media presence, don’t understand the language of IT (which allows the IT department to become the de facto lead in the business by simply saying “no” to requests from other parts of the business) and don’t see technology enabling as a priority for their organisations. They’ve often stripped IT budgets down to bare bones and don’t get personally involved in technology strategy as a business enabler.
But the biggest problem that is highlighted by Mnuchin’s statement is that many leaders today just reject things they don’t understand or don’t already know about. Related to this is a lack of curiosity. They’ve grown up in a world where leaders were those who were certain, experienced and knowledgeable. They don’t see the value of a new leadership model that embraces paradox, ambiguity and curiosity. At TomorrowToday, we believe that “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do” is the best definition of leadership these days. Leaders like Trump and Mnuchin demonstrate the exact opposite of this. I predict it won’t end well for them. Sadly (and this is a political statement) when leaders who impact thousands and millions of people’s lives make these kind of mistakes, they tend to hurt lots of people, and hurt them badly.
Make sure that you and your leaders don’t get caught out by a fast moving future, and the obvious impact technology is already having, and going to continue to have, on our world.
UPDATE: A reader sent me this interesting insight from Forbes on what SHOULD be done for “small town America” to move forward. Very simply put: “No piece of legislation or executive order can reverse economic realities that have been decades in the making.” I agree. And this piece suggests in investing in freelance and contingent workers, and small business entrepreneurs as a path to the future.
(PS, in our Future of Work Academy in April, our team has a resource to help you engage better with your IT department and make sure that they actually do enable your business, rather than restrict you. Membership to the Academy is required to access this resource.)