Want to Show That You’re a Leader? Try Being Vulnerable

Picture this:  in an interview you’re asked a question about something that went wrong in a past job. Instead of simply explaining what happened, you find yourself shamelessly spinning a story about how you had a feeling all along that whatever “it” was would fail but your hands were tied. In different versions, this propensity to preserve our egos, hide our vulnerabilities and only talk about our wins shows up in many MBA applicants that we see. You want to be competitive, so you only talk about the biggest, best and highest profile projects that you’ve worked on or led. Yet, you forget that those wins don’t always tell the reader much about your personality, how you’ve grown (or approach personal growth), how you take feedback, and how you evaluate yourself and the success of your decisions.  You don’t want to write a whole application about all of your shortcomings and development needs, but this article is meant to inspire you to look deeper (and even into your past failures or vulnerabilities) for the best leadership stories that can help you stand out from other applicants.

When you read the first paragraph, you might have said to yourself “yeah I’d never do that”. But it’s more commonplace than you may initially think – for high achieving people, you have often been held to such a high standard for so long that you’re afraid to fall off of your pedestal by admitting that you were wrong or that you didn’t understand, or didn’t do, something correctly. It’s engrained in us to not show weakness, especially in certain high intensity careers. In fact, one of my first managers constantly recited the motto “never admit defeat” (meaning never say you were wrong). But when it comes to your leadership style, and the way you portray yourself in your MBA applications, being “vulnerable” in the right ways can signal a level of maturity and leadership potential that far surpasses what admissions directors are used to seeing. Being vulnerable can be much more of an asset than a weakness as you seek to demonstrate your leadership potential!

Zooming out, you may be saying to yourself “but I have limited space – why would I focus anything on a failure or weakness unless directly asked?” After all, you want to focus your application on highlighting how awesome you are and all of the examples to prove it. But consider this – being able to show that you learned, took feedback, grew, and turned something around is actually a very powerful message that can support how awesome you are as well. If you want further proof that this matters, ask Kellogg why they have continued to ask the question “how have you grown…” as part of their essay requirements. Kellogg asks directly but most schools are looking for and assessing this as well.

Here’s an example of how this could play out so you can see what I mean. I had a client last year who worked at a very cool (and very large) e-commerce company that you can probably guess the name of. She had several cool leadership stories from her different roles at the company, but honestly they didn’t feel all that unique compared to her peers at other, comparable firms. Then during a brainstorming session we hit a gold mine – she started telling me a story about how she’d rebooted not only herself, but also her team, after a pretty epic project failure. She’d been reluctant to talk about the project in her applications since the initial failure could come across as reflecting poorly on her (and she’d have to admit her role in it). However, as we explored more, we realized that the risk of admitting a failure was much smaller than the amazing opportunity she had to demonstrate a deep sense of leadership, self-reflection and overall maturity.

The overarching project failure wasn’t entirely her fault – she was working on a small team led by someone who wasn’t a great manager; but she also admits that she didn’t speak-up as the ship was going down. Given how her org was setup, she probably could have done something. We started talking about all of the reasons why she hadn’t acted – fear, doubt, lack of confidence, etc. Then she explained how she course-corrected. The person who had been leading the team was asked to step down. The project resources were scaled back. And my client, despite being fairly young, was asked to lead the new, even smaller team to see if they could make it work (a last ditch effort). And you guessed it – she made it happen. She got creative, created a culture of consistent feedback on her team to prevent groupthink this time around, and ultimately launched a new tool for her company’s too-many-to-count number of customers.

Could someone read it and say “gee, I guess she’s not a natural leader because she didn’t speak up in the first place”? Maybe. But that’s not likely once they read about how she reflected upon her actions, how she wished she’d acted, and what that taught her about herself and how she needed to grow and develop. Then the “come from behind” win as well as the way she empowered her team was the icing on the cake demonstrating that not only was she able to personally grow, but she was able to start making an impact by learning fast and being thoughtful in her decisions.

That’s leadership potential friends. And that’s exactly the type of personality that admissions directors are looking for. In case you’re wondering, she got into her top two choices – Kellogg and Haas – even though her test scores were quite a bit below the average for those two schools. My guess is that it came down to her essays (as it often does), and she nailed it by painting a vivid picture of herself as a leader through a mix of touting accolades and being honest and vulnerable in admitting challenges and growth areas.

So, as you’re thinking about how to demonstrate your own leadership style and potential in your essays, here’s some food for thought from author and researcher Brene Brown who has conducted extensive research on the topic of vulnerability in leadership:

  • Vulnerability is not a weakness, it’s a measure of courage. Admitting when you were wrong, worrying about something that you feared wouldn’t happen, or embarking on a scary endeavor are all indications of a person who is brave and ready to learn and grow. Don’t be afraid to admit challenges and fears as they can say a lot about who you are as a person and who you’ll be as a future business leader (in a good way!)
  • Asking for help is a good thing. Hopefully you all know this, but admitting that you needed or asked for help is a really important thing to show the adcom that you know how to do (because that’s what you’ll do in b-school all the time). It’s ok, and actually great, to talk about when you needed help and how you sought it out. Seemingly solving all of your own problems all the time will come across as inauthentic and robotic.
  • Vulnerability builds trust. When you never admit you’re human, it’s hard for people to relate to you. And the MBA evaluation process is conducted by real, live people who are looking to see whether or not you can build relationships with other people.
  • Take off your armor. Being a real person with a low ego is the archetype of someone oozing with confidence and fearlessness. Be thoughtful about how you describe yourself, but don’t try so hard to seem perfect. As long as you can talk about how you’re constantly learning and growing, you’re going in the right direction.
  • I am absolutely not telling you to focus your application on weaknesses. Please read that again. The takeaway here is to look to your actual strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities in order to present an accurate, human and inspiring picture of yourself as a fabulous classmate and visionary future business leader! Don’t hide from yourself so much – some of your low points may actually be the things that took you from good to great!

We major in helping people go through the self-analysis and reflection process to get to the very best stories for their MBA applications. Request an initial consultation if you want a thought partner as you establish your application strategy this year!

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