How You Can Demonstrate Leadership in your MBA Applications

More often than not, when I bring-up the topic of how to demonstrate “leadership experience” in an MBA application, the response is “but I’m not in a management position”. Truly, that’s OK. The average age of most entering classes hovers around 26-28, so it’s not a surprise if you haven’t yet started managing a team. The truth is that many, if not most, applicants (and admitted applicants) to the the top business schools in the world have never had a direct report.

However, almost all of those admitted to the top MBA programs are able to demonstrate two things:
1) their inherent leadership qualities; and
2) their inherent leadership potential.

In the May issue of the Harvard Business Review, there is an intriguing article about the four leadership qualities that were found among the highest performing CEOs during a 10-year study. (On a side note, HBR is a GREAT publication if you’re interested in business school – I highly recommend that you subscribe or at least peruse the articles online from time to time).

The four things that HBR cited could be great thought starters for you as you consider how you’ll describe your leadership aptitude in your upcoming application essays. These are qualities that you can probably point to as either areas where you currently excel or areas where you want to excel (eg. why you are applying to business school):

  1. Decisiveness
  2. Ability to Engage Others (eg. Motivate)
  3. Ability to Adapt Well to Change
  4. Reliability (in Producing Results)

Even if you’ve only been working for a few years, chances are that you can give examples of how you’ve exhibited some of these leadership qualities. For example, if you work on a team, you should be able to point to a time when you’ve engaged others. Last year, I worked with a private equity associate who’d had to convince the leadership of one of his portfolio companies that they needed to renegotiate with their largest customer (even though that was culturally not the norm). I also worked with a consultant who’d needed to convince his team that on-the-ground research (literally door-to-door) was the way to go. Both of these examples ended in great successes but the real success (to the adcom) was the fact that these people were able to motivate those around them.

Similarly, stories about adapting to change lend themselves to describing how great your problem solving skills are. Perhaps your company was blindsided by Brexit and there was suddenly an unexpected need for reanalyzing your business unit’s sales strategy or the data that you use. Or maybe you worked in a company that was acquired. For example, I worked with a woman this past year who had amazing stories of how she’d worked with an acquiring company’s management team to ensure a smooth integration as they took over her firm. It not only showcased her ability to change but it also showcased her ability to get right in there and help solve the issues that would inevitably pop-up in any merger (even though this was far from her day job).

Many people cite their extracurriculars for leadership qualities and potential as well. Maybe you’ve been tutoring for an organization for several years and realized that the student drop-out rate was pretty high. And perhaps you were proactive in considering what the issues may be and submitted a proposal to the executive director; even though this was far outside of your volunteer scope within the organization. Being a reliable contributor who goes above and beyond when the situation arises is a great quality to demonstrate on your applications.

Remember, the key is showing that you are inherently a leader, not inherently an “order-taker”.

Many of the top programs have started releasing their essay topics for this year. Now is the time to get started if you haven’t already. Give yourself enough time to ensure that you are able to write winning essays that showcase all of your inherent leadership abilities and potential!

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