It’s no secret that MBAs are looking to produce the world’s next generation of leaders. And that explains why the idea of “leadership” forms a big part of nearly every application essay prompt. But what does it actually mean to be a leader?
The term can seem nebulous at times – obviously, not everyone can be a capital-L Leader, or else who would those people lead? And, likely, if you’re applying for an MBA, it’s because you’re seeking out leadership positions. You’re probably not Satya Nadella quite yet, but the point of these prompts is to show that you have the potential to become the type of person who could head a major company or project in the future. Therefore, the idea is not necessarily to show that you’re a leader (because, again… what?) but, rather, to show that you’ve demonstrated leadership in the past, as this is the best indicator for your potential in the future.
When arguing your leadership, you’ll need to focus on particular moments that demonstrate this potential. By focusing on specific experiences from your professional past, you can avoid sounding like you’re using “leadership” as a buzzword. There are a couple ways to do this. The first, and least effective (though, admittedly, still effective) is to show that you were placed in charge or a group of people. This, by definition, is leadership. If you’re an Associate at a bank and you mentor a team of four Analysts, great. That’s leadership. But it’s worth noting that this kind of leadership can easily be listed as a bullet point on your resume. It doesn’t do much to show how you have demonstrated leadership ability, and it doesn’t promise that you’ll be able to lead a team of 100 later on in your career. So, though you should absolutely list this kind of leadership on your resume, your essays require a more robust approach.
To demonstrate leadership in your essays, try the following equation:
Demonstrated leadership = innovation + impact.
For every act of leadership that you want to include, start with innovation. To do so, you’ll need to step back and start with the need for innovation. There’s a problem. There’s an obstacle in the way. There’s an inefficiency of process that’s causing a bottleneck. Take a moment and explain the issue to the adcom. Your team needed to accomplish XX goal, but YY obstacle stood in your way. Step 1 to demonstrating leadership is showing how you, the innovative thinker, found a way to overcome that obstacle. From there, you rallied your team around the plan, and you ultimately succeeded.
Once you’ve showcased your innovation, it’s time to show your impact. Compared to the results your team usually achieves, how did your newly innovative approach stack up? Give comparative results to show that your innovation improved your team’s success. Revenue on a specific project grew by 20%? That’s impact.
But there’s more! True leadership creates lasting impact, so you’ll get some major leadership bonus points if you can show that your innovation – your legacy – was carried on by your company after you moved on to other projects. Let’s say you designed an automated reporting tool for your company’s consulting platform, and let’s say your tool saved 15% in labor costs in the first quarter. Great. But what’s greater is if that tool was preserved in your institutional process and saved 15% in labor cost every quarter for the past 3 years. That’s lasting impact resulting from your innovation, and that’s the highest mark of demonstrated leadership.
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