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The Absurdity of Robot CEOs


Jack Ma, the CEO of Alibaba, made a comment this week that is as absurd as it is mystifying, if not dangerous. While speaking at a business conference in China, Ma said, "In 30 years, a robot will likely be on the cover of Time magazine as the best CEO."

That’s right. I’m not making that up. And while it would be easy to dismiss his comment as nonsense, it’s worth looking deeper at what he said, and what it says about the culture of business in the world today.

Keep in mind that Ma, the head of China’s version of Amazon, is considered to be a voice of wisdom in leadership. Fortune recently named him one of the world’s greatest leaders. And yet, if he actually believes that leadership can be performed by a robot, what does that imply?

First, it implies that leadership is primarily an intellectual pursuit. I couldn’t disagree more. The best leaders in the world aren’t necessarily the smartest people, they are the ones with the most courage, wisdom and virtue.

A computer cannot be courageous, wise or virtuous. The fact that one of the world’s greatest leaders, as determined by one of the world’s leading publications on business, doesn’t seem to grasp this is quite astounding. Perhaps he doesn’t understand that his role goes far beyond intellect, that it involves ethical, emotional and even moral considerations. I fear that other leaders in the world see their jobs this way, too.

Second, beyond the leader as an individual, what about the organization as a whole? The greatest differentiator a company can achieve revolves around organizational health, which includes everything from the interpersonal dynamics and intellectual alignment of a leadership team to the way a company communicates and reinforces its unique culture. To suggest that Southwest Airlines or Chick-fil-A or Zappos could be run by a robot is to attribute the success of those organizations to intellectual superiority. Ask the leaders of those companies if their success is primarily a function of their intelligence and they’ll laugh out loud.

Leadership and organizational health are uniquely human pursuits, involving virtue and emotion and intuition. Those who believe that robots can be leaders will next be suggesting that they can be parents, too. It makes one wonder if there is a fundamental misunderstanding of humanity among many leaders in the world today, which is a dangerous thing for employees, and for society as a whole. I believe the world needs leaders, now more than ever, who understand the depth of their responsibilities, and the unique capabilities and needs that human beings have, in the workplace and the world.