AI should not replace good leadership

A creepy use of artificial intelligence

Not too long ago, I have joined a network which aims to share progress in and experience with the development and application of systems or machines controlled by artificial intelligence-based algorithms. I used to be very sceptical about artificial intelligence. However, in the context of research I had to do for a book I co-wrote about Digitalisation in Coaching I had to investigate this area as well and that got me curious. I decided I wanted to get up-to-date on the subject and know more about the opportunities of AI.

So, in one of these networking events a few weeks ago, someone presented a project to monitor the quality of hygiene standards adhered to by personnel in a massive pig fattening facility. To realise the importance of hygiene in such facilities one needs to understand that mass meat production is highly susceptible to infections. And often only the application of infection suppressants and antibiotics allows the farmers to keep the number of animals lost through infections low. Hence, a big risk are infections brought in by personnel working inside these facilities. Therefore, anyone entering the stables where pigs are held must follow rigorous cleaning/hygiene protocols, even passing through airlock systems.

A shadow-side of AI

The project presented that evening was to design, develop and test a system that would utilise sports watches to track the exact movement of every single person going through the airlock. The resulting protocols of the pilot system showed the exact time people took to get undressed, go through a shower protocol, and get dressed again to start their work. The system was able, by accessing data from the accelerometer and gyroscope of the sports watch, to trace the exact movement of the person’s hand at any time. The sets of data for each person were evaluated against predefined cleaning protocols. If it fell outside certain boundaries the management of the facility received warning messages about elevated risks posed by that person.

At first, I was intrigued by what is possible and how artificial intelligence can be used to monitor hygiene standards. However, when I thought about it in more detail and realised that the intrusion into personal spaces was significant here, I was actually appalled by the purpose of such a system. I then asked the presenter why they would even need such a monitoring system for each person entering the facility. The answer was that their customer told them that morale amongst workers was so bad that the only way they could manage them was extremely close monitoring and punishment if a person failed to comply.

Apart from the ethical concerns I have about intruding a person’s privacy by monitoring every movement in the shower, I also wondered if this isn’t an abuse of the opportunities of new technologies like AI to compensate for bad leadership.

Old style = Bad style

Of course, I need to be careful not to judge the management of these facilities too quickly because all I know about the situation is what was presented that evening around the AI-project.
Yet, for me it sounded like they were looking for a system to control and coerce people rather than asking themselves if they could maybe motivate them to comply to the required high hygienic standards. Based on several discussions I had over the years, I was also wondering whether the managers in these facilities were basing their approach on the famous ‘Theory X’, which assumes that human beings by nature are lazy and need to be monitored or supervised and coerced with the famous carrot and stick method; in this case through avoidance of punishment.

The power of effective leadership

Imagine how it might be for the people working in these facilities. What, if they had a deep sense of meaning of their work and the responsibilities associated with it, building their intrinsic motivation? They feed thousands after all. And wouldn’t it be nice to do that safely for everyone involved, including the animals?
One of the best quotes I remember about building intrinsic motivation comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He is one of the founders of positive psychology. ‘If a leader demonstrates that his purpose is noble and transcendent, that the work will enable organisational members to connect with something larger and more permanent than their material existence, people will give the best of themselves to the enterprise’. I have already written about this effect quite some time ago in a blog about motivation.

I am still baffled when I read or hear stories where leadership is replaced by methods or processes or even the long-outlived ‘carrot and stick’-approach. With everything we have learned about intrinsic motivation it is unbelievable how long it takes to penetrate organisations and behaviours of people with responsibilities for others. And I deliberately avoid the title ‘leader’ here.

Interesting literature on the subject

Not long ago I read an abstract of an interesting book called The Algorithmic Leader from Mike Walsh.
He suggests using AI in its best way to be used in service of leaders and bring its power to areas where we as humans lack capacity or ability. An example given: a start-up used extensive data from its parent company to better assess new applicants’ risk profiles. It required no time-consuming human effort, only an algorithm correlating between past and future customers.
They point out that machine learning can refine systems to take-over reliably the more arduous work of sifting through vast amounts of data, leaving people time to do more intelligent and creative activities such as brainstorming, relationship building or developing a compelling vision. 

In that way, I believe, whoever is in charge of leading people could have more time for leadership and be less bogged down by managerial or operational tasks.


All the insights I gained through my research into AI turned me into a supporter of artificial intelligence provided it serves humankind. The example of the pig fattening facilities’ hygiene monitoring system I described above does definitely, at least in my world, not serve the people involved. Artificial intelligence, used in a positive way, can greatly contribute to the technological advances in our world and help leaders to be more effective as leaders. However, such systems should never be used to compensate for inferior leadership.

And, of course, there is a vast array of opportunities for its misuse that will no doubt keep the world discussing for a while but reaches much too far for this blog.

Still, if you are interested to explore this further, please feel free to leave a comment below or …

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