Idea in Brief

The Challenge

Much has been written about the hard skills needed to become an effective leader—but mental shifts are just as important.

Why It’s Crucial

The intensity of leadership roles today—the variety of problems encountered, the need to spot patterns early and often, the sheer amount of work—requires the human equivalent of machine learning.

How to Meet It

Aspiring leaders can prepare by developing a “personal leadership brand” that reflects their values, honing their decision-making, being clear about what’s needed from their teams, learning how to compartmentalize, expanding their self-awareness, and crafting a personal narrative that accepts the possibility of failure and avoids the role of victim.

When Penny Herscher stepped into her first chief executive role, at the tech firm Simplex Solutions, she felt sure she was prepared. After all, she had held marketing, business development, and general manager positions at her previous company, Synopsys, and she was comfortable taking on difficult challenges. Even so, her confidence quickly evaporated. “I had no clue how to be a CEO,” she says. “I kept finding myself in situations where I didn’t feel I had the experience and the tool set to know what to do, and I kept waiting for permission to make decisions.” Then one of the company’s directors took her aside. “You’re looking to the board for permission,” he told her. “We’ll give you advice, but you have to make your own decisions.” With that nudge she found her footing and went on to lead her company to a successful IPO.

A version of this article appeared in the July–August 2023 issue of Harvard Business Review.