Neural Networks and Leadership Development

As I remember from my early career, computer code is very explicit step-by-step instructions for how you want a computer to respond to a set of commands.  A lot of “if, then” statements and if you place the commas and the parenthesis in the right places, the computer responds as planned.  I’m sure it is more complicated than that now, but for those who do not code, you get the gist. The computer doesn’t make a nuanced call based on everything going on around it; it just knows “if this happens, do this.”

Wired magazine recently had a cover that called out /*the end of code*/ and outlined how the biggest technology companies in Silicon Valley have been pursuing a different approach called machine learning.  With machine learning, the computer is trained through a deep neural network that mimics the layers of connections in the brain.  Google replaced its head of search engine with an expert in machine learning .  It has gotten to the point that it is interesting to watch how Google will defend itself against a European antitrust investigation regarding influencing search results—because, according to author Jason Tanz, Google’s own engineers can’t say exactly how the search works.

Wired Magazine

Perhaps, much like code, we should think about /*the end of leadership training*/ at least in the form in which it currently exists. We, after all, already have neural networks.  We have brains.   In the same way code is logic, so are the behaviors that inspire trust, build engagement, fix systems and processes, and eventually lead to a result.  All leadership training covers the same elements with slightly different words, tools, and inspirational models.  But that logic isn’t enough.  Leadership development efforts, particularly training and coaching, help those that lead others understand the typical “if I do this, then this happens.”

Except sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes people, who are very complicated, aren’t engaged even though the leader has followed every rule on building engagement. Sometimes people don’t extend trust when logically they should.  And sometimes the situation calls for something slightly different than what the training or the executive coach or the newest book outlines.  We need to use our brains, and in addition, something that doesn’t yet exist in Artificial Intelligence—our hearts—and even our spirits, when leading others.

Code hasn’t gone away but the part it plays in the future is changing. Code provides the structure through which the machine learning flows.  Leadership development provides a wonderful baseline, particularly since the competencies to be successful as a leader don’t come naturally to most.  And like code, great leaders use the training and coaching–the leadership development–as a scaffolding for which the neural network can flow in-between.

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