At Stacy Blackman Consulting, we do a lot of thinking about leadership – what is leadership, how best to showcase it, why it matters, and more. If asked what is the single most important quality for business school applications, I would say leadership. While some schools emphasize it more than others, leadership is extremely important to every school. They are grooming overall leaders, not just number-crunchers, marketers or statisticians.
When faced with any iteration of the leadership question on their MBA essays, many applicants freak out because they imagine they’ve got to come up with an example that is basically their greatest life or professional achievement. But just because you achieved something outstanding does not always mean leadership skills were involved, especially if you did most or all of the work. Also, leadership often gets confused with management, but being a great leader is not just about managing something, although that can be a part of it. It’s about leaving a footprint on whatever situation you’re in and doing more than a good job.
Remember, leadership is never a solo effort. One of the central tenets of leadership essays is showing that you can galvanize the actions of other people. You bring out their passions. You educate them. You help them see organizational priorities in new ways. And then they share in the achievement. You’re inspiring others and bringing out the best in them. These two points are critical and help to explain how leadership differs from just any great achievement.
The most impacting leadership essays will have heroes other than yourself. If you helped Henry in accounts receivable realize his full potential on a project you led, showcase him as a hero in your leadership tale. In the best of all worlds, people create a good balance between these types of essays at the beginning of their application process, even before they start writing. However the good news is that, in many instances, you can still adjust your application fairly late in the process to achieve the appropriate balance between individual achievement and leadership.
Adding in a few sentences here and there about enabling others, or educating and defining priorities for group endeavors, will go a long way toward rounding out your profile. What kind of experiences will make the best tales of leadership? Think about challenges where the following came into play:
- Identifying/defining a problem
- Resisting conventional approaches; challenging status quo
- Marshaling resources to address problem
- Motivating others
- Making good use of others’ talents
- Being open to new information, input, etc.
- Building consensus with appropriate stakeholders
- Guiding strong mid-course corrections; overcoming mistakes
- Building on success
Keep in mind, leadership is not just about the titles. Some candidates try to build their leadership essays around the fact that they were selected for or elected to certain positions where they had a high level of authority and responsibility: editor-in-chief of a college paper, fraternity president, captain of the hockey team, director of product development, V.P. of marketing, etc. Collecting impressive titles does not make someone a great leader—helping a team overcome great challenges does.
Don’t get hung up on coming up with wildly impressive situations, even if you’re applying to the most elite MBA program in the world. You can solve smaller problems and still show leadership potential. I remember one candidate who was applying to business school with just six months of work experience under her belt. As a result, she had few obvious leadership examples, but she had taken it upon herself to overhaul an Excel spreadsheet for the investment bank where she worked.
To do this, she had to state the problem, come up with a solution, and sell others, including supervisors, on her idea. Her improved spreadsheet—containing market information including Treasury rates—saved time, became a great internal resource, and helped the bank communicate better with clients. Taking the initiative to change this spreadsheet was what she wrote about in her application.
You can also look to your extracurricular activities to show leadership without clear career progression. Starting a club, organization, or charitable group works, too. If you have been involved in an activity as a member, think about taking on a leadership role. This is your opportunity to demonstrate that you can run a project and motivate a team.
One of my clients launched an English club in his native China because he needed to improve his language skills for business school and thought his neighbors might benefit, too. The club grew, and he made his mark in the community, which was something he could point out to admissions committees. He showed he could inspire and motivate others, organize a group, and learn a new language to boot. The applicant ultimately was accepted at Harvard Business School.
When it comes to evaluating your application, members of the MBA admissions committee believe your past leadership achievements are the best gauge of your potential for realizing your future ambitions. You can’t go wrong if you use your essays to show how you’ve worked to inspire others and bring out the best in them.