When faced with any iteration of the leadership question on MBA essays, many business school applicants freak out because they think they have to come up with an example that is their greatest life or professional achievement. In reality, it’s not about grand gestures or formal leadership titles. The goal is leaving a footprint on whatever situation you’re in and doing more than a good job.
Applicants need to think through their past experiences to find the episodes that best illustrate their leadership skills. Sometimes, the best examples are not the first that come to mind.
Your leadership essay will often be different from an “accomplishment” or “achievement” oriented essay. Just because you achieved something outstanding does not always mean leadership skills were involved, especially if you did most or all of the work.
[Learn how to strike the right tone in MBA essays.]
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.
The work of a leader activates or improves the work of others, so find anecdotes in your professional and extracurricular background that illustrate this kind of pattern.
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 a problem
• Motivating others
• Making good use of others’ talents
• Being open to new information and input
• Building consensus with appropriate stakeholders
• Guiding strong mid-course corrections; overcoming mistakes
• Building on success
Remember: Leadership is not just about the titles. Some candidates 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, or vice president of marketing.
But what did you do with this position? An editor of a college daily could write about how he or she was constantly challenged to maintain high levels of editorial excellence, manage staff assignments, and hit all deadlines. This is definitely an esteemed position with many responsibilities, but if you describe your role like that, it sounds exactly the same as the other hundreds of editors-in-chief of college papers also applying this season.
Define the leadership challenges you faced, not the management ones. Did you have to deal with a certain writer who falsified interview notes? Was there a sticky campus scandal that forced you and your staff to walk an ethical tightrope? Did you have to fire student editors? Did you lead a transition from a weekly to a daily with all of the scheduling and human resources rigors that entails?
Collecting impressive titles does not make someone a great leader—helping a team overcome great challenges does.
The strongest leadership essays will have heroes other than yourself. If you helped Terri in accounts receivable realize her full potential on a project you led, showcase her as a hero in your leadership tale.
In the best possible scenario, applicants should map out a good balance at the beginning of their application process between achievement-oriented essays and those focusing specifically on leadership. 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 about enabling others, or educating and defining priorities for group endeavors, will go a long way toward rounding out your profile. Many achievement essays can be transformed into glorious examples of leadership when you shine the spotlight on others who were a part of a great collective accomplishment.
Don’t forget that leadership is never a solo effort. When it comes to MBA essays, you can’t go wrong if you show how you’ve worked to inspire others and bring out the best in them.
This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA blog on U.S.News.com.
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