Uli Chi, tech entrepreneur turned leadership professor, finds the roots of leadership in the human vocation. As the world, including the world of technology, changes rapidly what humans need in order to lead is wisdom.

If you’ve been around these pages for any amount of time, you recognize we talk a lot about wisdom. Because the world changes fast, for good and for ill. When it comes to leadership, tips and hacks only go so far. What we need is wisdom and more of it.

According to Uli Chi, we feel this need because living in wisdom is at least part of what it means to be human. It’s part of our calling as people. Chi, a former tech entrepreneur and businessman who now teaches leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary, is also the author of a new book, The Wise Leader, out in May. Chi talked to Common Good in February.

When it comes to leadership, you focus on wisdom. Why?

We live in an increasingly complex and polarized world. How are we going to lead well? How does leadership work in a world that is more complicated than it’s ever been? In particular, as Christians, how do we engage the world constructively? I like to say that wisdom is becoming fully human, and it involves learning how we deal with things like complexity, paradox, and even mystery. It’s learning to make sense of the world around us and developing a way of being in the world that leads to human and creational flourishing.

To what extent can that model work in a secular context?

I think being Christian is really recovering our fully intended humanity. Jesus came to be fully human. In that sense, Christian leadership is being a truly and fully human leader. And I find that language more helpful.

Over the past few years, I’ve been deeply involved in the merger of a secular and a Catholic health care system. A significant part of my role has been to bridge the gap between these two worlds. It’s fascinating to note that many of the values our secular counterparts hold dear are, in fact, deeply rooted in Christian, gospel values. While they may not label it as such, and we may not always recognize it, the Christian tradition underpins many of their core values. This, I believe, makes a Christian vision of leadership relevant beyond Christian organizations and makes it possible for that vision to resonate with secular and religious audiences alike.

Anyone paying attention can see examples of abusive power. We’ve seen pushback in the form of heavy emphasis on collaboration, team-based models, etc. You give some pushback to that.

I don’t think the right use of power or even humility means abdicating the role that you’ve been given. There are certain things only a leader in a particular role can do, such as setting direction and trajectory. Sometimes you can have group decisions, but not all of the time. What’s helpful is to be clear upfront about what the decision-making dynamic is going to be. Sometimes, a group of people thinks they’re going to decide together when it’s actually the leader’s responsibility to decide.

You started your career launching a tech company, and now you’re teaching leadership. How did that unfold?

My earliest interests were in math and physics. I was always interested in why things were the way they were. And I’ve always been interested in technology, but the technologies that I’ve worked on have focused on human creativity and capacity. My first job was creating a technology that was essentially an industrial video game for loggers to help them make better decisions in the field. Later, we built a system that helped the customers of commercial office-furniture makers design their own office spaces and decide what kind of furniture they needed. So I wasn’t just interested in technology for its own sake, but I was always interested in the human dimension and human decision-making.

The use of AI is a huge topic now. Does your background bring any insight to that?

We hardwired algorithms rather than creating a learning system, which is fundamental to the whole current AI approach. But what I took away from my experience was the importance of creating technology that empowers people and enhances their agency rather than diminishing it. I think there are several dangers in thinking about AI in particular.

What are those dangers?

One is that somehow we abdicate moral responsibility to a system rather than using that system as an enhancement to our capacity to make better decisions. Human beings have been given the unique responsibility for ensuring human and creational flourishing. Another thing I’m nervous about is that AI decision-making can be unintelligible and lack transparency. In our case, all the technologies we built were explicable. People knew what was going on and why. The last thing I would say about AI is that there needs to be an awareness of the bias and the limitations of both the data and the learning algorithms. Perhaps unintentionally, bias can be introduced, and I think understanding what those biases are is a part of the human responsibility.

More broadly, where do you see the place of technology in leadership?

Technology is a great servant but a terrible master. I think fundamentally human agency implies that we take seriously our creation mandate to own our responsibility, whatever that looks like. A good example is health care: There are lots of robotic technologies available to assist surgeons. The technologies make the surgeon and the surgeries better. But they don’t displace or remove the creative and imaginative piece or the responsibility of the surgeon. That’s what I’m arguing for.

Is leadership itself an art or a science?

I think both art and analysis matter. Being able to think rationally and imaginatively are both important. And there’s an individual artistry in leadership, as well as the need to look for best practices. One of my favorite quotes from T.S. Eliot is, “We dream of systems so perfect that no one has to be good.” I think one of the illusions of systems thinking can be that somehow individual character and goodness don’t matter, that we can make things perfect by simply imposing a certain structure. That goes fundamentally against why human beings are here and what becoming fully human means.