Impact: shaping, and throwing your heart into it

Over our lifetimes, we all have the opportunity to influence thousands of people. Even the most introverted people can make an impact! So how can we leverage this power for the better? How can we become better leaders?

Riccarda Zezza, CEO of Life Based Value and Manuela Andaloro, CEO of SmartBizHub and international blogger, joined forces to create a series of interviews aimed at portraying impact makers and leaders who are driving change and innovation worldwide. In doing so, are raising awareness on a new successful type of genuine leadership.

New role models who base their success on strategic ‘soft’ skills, such as empathy, creativity, communication, those incredible few who spark energy and strength as they positively impact others and society.

After a very successful first interview with Chiara Condi, we continue this month with an open discussion with Dr. Mariarosaria Taddeo. She’s a Researcher Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, and Deputy Director of the Digital Ethics Lab. Together, we talk about her work, her values and commitment to Artificial Intelligence and its applications to a vast variety of sectors.

Mariarosaria, I would like to reveal a few aspects of your professional life and the impact you have had. Shall we start with who is Mariarosaria today?

Once I read Italo Calvino’s lecture ‘On Lightness’. I copied a passage that I keep framed in my home office: “The sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times—noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring—belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars”.

It must have been 15 years ago when I first read that book. Sometime I think I have managed to achieve that lightness, but then it does not take long for me to realize I am still not there. That lightness requires constant training. It comes with a proper understanding of the world and of human nature. So I continue to strive for that lightness and to gain a better understanding of the order of the world.

More mundanely, I am a scholar. As a scholar I have passion for understanding things and solving (conceptual) problems. I like analytical thinking, precise language; a certain order in the way things are done. I am also a woman, which to me means braveness, smartness, determination, integrity, irony, elegance.

So, today, I am someone who is working to become a better scholar, a better woman, a better person; some days it looks like I succeeded, some other days less so.

When I say work-life balance, what do you envision?

I envision fun. I do not see a real distinction between work and life. The idea of balance implies a trade-off, as if one (work) came at the expense of the other (life). This is unacceptable. It should not be the way in which the two are related. I am committed to the idea that our jobs should be part of our plans to spend our lives well, not a sacrifice to go through life.

I’ve been doing the job that I have wanted to do since I was a child. I enjoy it tremendously: it enriches my life, it enables me to express core aspects of my personality, it keeps my curiosity alive and gives me the opportunity to grow as a person. At the same time, I am fortunate enough to have wonderful friends and family with whom I can share my passions, my ideas, my doubts and this helps with my work.

I realize that this is not the case for most of us. And I believe that it is important to change this. We need to have in place the right infrastructures, support, means, and leaders to prevent work from becoming alienation; that the hours we spend working do not become time subtracted from our lives. It is a complex matter, one that requires urgent and careful consideration.

Where do the synergies between your professional and personal goals lead you daily?

Inevitably, personal and professional lives feed each other. Together they always take me on new adventures. Some days feel like being caught between Scylla and Charybdis; one needs tremendous skills to navigate through a rough patch of water and have a clear sense of the hazards therein. Other days are like having just passed Scylla and Charybdis; you look back and try to see what went well and what did not go well but with a sense of achievement. Some other days are like being at the mouth of the Straits of Messina and preparing for the challenge. The lesson learned from these ‘adventures’ is exactly this: there are days in which the risk is either ahead, past or in front of us and it is important to remember this all the time and not to lose perspective.

Why does management have such a bad reputation in some corporations? If it is because of bad management, how does one not become one and how can you thrive among them?

I work in academia so I am not sure about management in a corporation. I’ll answer your second question, ‘how not to become a bad manager’, which seems more broad. From my experience it is important to reach a balance between internal and external factors.

Internally, good managing rest on the ability to build the right team. This means getting and maintaining the right talent and resources and then carefully balancing the inevitable social and political dynamics that will emerge within the team. It is also about making sure that the ambitions of the leader are or become the ambitions of all the team members, making sure that the success of the team means the success of all its members. Finding the right equilibrium between managing and empowering the team members is also crucial. Externally, a good manager has the responsibility to understand the bigger picture, to foresee risks and emerging opportunities and to get the team ready to mitigate the former and harness the latter. Not an easy task.

What is the biggest professional mistake women are still making – what should we stop doing?

There are two mistakes. The first one is, fortunately, increasingly less common, and it is to forgo ambitions or goals that appear to be at odds with cultural norms (for example, some jobs are male-dominated so women are less encouraged to undertake them) or at odds with one’s personal aspirations (starting a family, for example). To sacrifice these ambitions before even trying is detrimental to oneself and to other women. It is like a self-imposed censorship, with the caveat that it also harms other people. It is always worth trying, trying harder, and perhaps even failing.

The second mistake is making it all about being women and allowing it to be a relevant factor in career choices, more relevant than skills, background, experiences, more than one’s plan and ambitions. Do not get me wrong, protecting and fostering diversity in the work place is crucial. Ensuring equality is fundamental. I believe that it is everybody’s responsibility (women and men) to ensure that diversity and equality are respected. But this is different from proving one’s ability and value in the workplace which should have nothing to do with gender. We, as women, need a fair playing field not a different one to show that we can be an asset in our workplaces. Confusing fair with a different is dangerous and may only bring us more discrimination.

Will the millennial generation be a very different kind of leader?

To some extent yes. The values of this generation seem to be more aligned with social and environmental sustainability. At the same time, leaders also have to deal with external factors (economic, political, technological), so these values will shape future leaders to the same extent in which they will shape future societies.

There is a large debate going on around the future of work, talent retention, women and millennial’s values. What do you think the future holds for old-school organizations?

Millennials are the biggest generation in history. They have strong values and are growing and getting ready to take over a leading position. Old-school organizations will have to adapt to new models of management if they want to retain resources and talent when competing with more modern organizations. Old-school management will face pressure from their competitors and hopefully also from laws and regulations which will increasingly foster values such as diversity, equality, and environmental sustainability.

What’s the most important business or other discovery you’ve made in the past year?

Three perhaps. One is a paper published in Nature “Regulate Artificial Intelligence to avert cyber arms race” (with Luciano Floridi), in which we described the next wave of cyber conflicts and the risks that they may pose for international stability. The second is related to the first one and is a theory for deterring attacks in cyberspace. The theory has been published in Strategic Analysis Hybrid CoE – The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats and it is likely to fill an important gap in our understanding of cyber conflicts and ways to avoid their escalation. The third one is broader and it is not my own discovery but it is equally important. It is the research and achievements of the Digital Ethics Lab. The group has been very successful. Its success makes me tremendously proud and it is a constant source of inspiration and motivation for me

How do you recharge your energy?

It depends on the moment: trips to Puglia, dinner with friends, a video call with my sisters, a good book, horse back riding, even clubbing sometimes, are at the top of my list.

What drives you at the end of the day?

It is the passion for understanding things; in finding the truth; in solving a problem but also in getting better at my job and growing as a person. As a scholar, the ambition is to advance human understanding even only a bit and to use this understanding to shape our world. In my case, this means better understanding the dynamics of the impact digital technologies have on our lives and environment and shape this impact so that it will foster human flourishing and respect for our environment.

What does impact mean for you? How would you describe the impact you have had on people and on the world?

Impact is about shaping: offering an approach, a model, a way of thinking or doing things that others find insightful and start using. As a scholar my impact is perhaps mostly related to the way we think about cyber conflicts and the way we should regulate them. My research contributed to a shift in the way we deal with this phenomenon from an old approach based upon analogies with conventional conflicts to a new, original approach based on a deeper understanding of the nature of these conflicts.

I may also have an impact as a lecturer and mentor by shaping the work of some of my students or even just the way they approach some aspects of their future work.

A few final words of wisdom and tips for our career-oriented impact-makers, professionals and entrepreneurs alike, women and men?

I can only share the same lesson that was passed onto me when I started working in this area, “throw your heart into it”. Once you make a decision, risk it and commit to it. I should also add that one should be aware that very rarely a single decision can be made which inadvertently makes other decisions, too, which can subsequently impact other aspects of life and the lives of other people. This is why making the right decision is not easy at all; such is life.