I've noticed there seems to be quite a few people on GMATClub that are still 1 to 2 years (or more) away from actually sending in the apps. This is absolutely awesome! I wish that I had the opportunity and the smarts to do what these people are doing so early. It really is easier to map out the road ahead knowing if you follow it, you're even more likely to find your desired destination: Top B-School Admission!
With that in mind, I thought I'd put down my best advice for those looking to build leadership, as this seems to be the common theme of desired characteristics whether it be Harvard, Stanford, or anywhere else down the list.
Here are my bullet lists of advice and anyone else, PLEASE ADD YOUR ADVICE. The more perspectives we have on here, the more helpful it will be to those like smkrn who have the time to really create that "wow" factor. If these people get into Harvard or Stanford, few of us may be alumni with them, but GMATClub in itself can still be a networking tool.
1) Volunteer. While it does seem to matter where you volunteer (i.e., by the number of Habitat for Humanity volunteers you'd think everyone in America was living in a new H4H house!), the key factor is just do it. Find something that a) you absolutely love b) are, or can become, an expert in this area, and c) that saves baby seals. Just kidding about c), although if that's your thing, don't let the cliche of it drive you away. So often, the people that have incredible resumes and leadership profiles are the people that MAKE IT HAPPEN. I've rarely seen someone achieve this by sitting around waiting for someone else to come along and ask them to be a leader. If you like to cook, go to some high school (if they still teach home economics with real kitchens) and volunteer to teach kids how to cook healither or something. Write about your desire to cure childhood obesity and this is the action you took.
2) Similar to "Volunteer" is "Ask for leadership at work." This is kind of tricky because it can be taken a few different ways. 1) It can look like you're trying too hard and won't be received well by superiors, or 2) it may not appear to coincide with your job responsibilities. You might be so swamped with what you already have to do that a supervisor may hesitate to add even more to your plate. Be sincere and show that you're really ready to put in the extra hours and effort for whatever it takes. Also, make sure your attitude is that you're doing this for the best of the company. If it seems self-serving, no one likes that and you can be resented for it. You risk becoming the office kiss-ass. If you look around your office and you can't identify who this kiss-ass is...it might just be you and you didn't even know it!
If you seek it out and are given a leadership role or added responsibility, here are a few things I think are very important to keep in mind:
1) Get the task at hand done. I've seen, and heard about, so many times when an employee gets that "break" they've been waiting for. They want to show their boss how great and smart and ready they are that they take a simple task and add 36 things to it because if 1 thing was good, 36 more is Super Star Status! Leaders never fail to get the task done. That's at least one key. You can enhance a project to make it as great as it possibly can be, but never lose sight of the goal.
For example, you work for a medium sized company and the boss is looking at making some changes to the telecom package the company purchases for drivers in the field, but needs to analyze the effects of the changes and which alternatives on her list will be best. This is a relatively simple thing to do, but it really could help the boss make the decision better and when it comes time for her to remember who helped her out, you're name will be there as the one that succeeded and made her life easier. But, what if you see the task in the manner "They're asking me to look over freaking telephone company brochures! I can do so much more than this! What if we outfitted our field drivers with laptops, so they could enter purchase orders, print invoices and all other sorts of things? We'll make them a mobile office! Sweet. They'll love this." So you spend the next 3 weeks figuring out what mobile fax machine works best, the best laptop with WiFi connect card to purcahse, what designs and features to incorporate into a new website to handle the mobile office functionality the field crews will use, and how much this will cost the company, but justify it with a fabulous cost-benefit analysis.
Nevermind that this goes WAY beyond what was asked of you. It's great to think of alternatives, but don't lose sight of the goal: better mobile telecom packages. All this other stuff might be great, but there could be factors you have not been told. The boss is likely to say "These are good ideas. I'll keep them in mind. What did you come up with for the mobile telecom packages?" If you don't have anything to give her, you're screwed. You got so excited about the leadership opportunity and your big "break" that you failed to do the simple task actually asked of you. LEADERS handle the basics and the details aren't overlooked. The boss in this example would rather have someone she can trust to do what is asked, and maybe throw in a few other ideas, but more important is somene that is dependable. Leaders are dependable.
4) CYA. Yeah, it stands for what you think it stands for, but with a twist. Cover Your [subordinate's] Asses. I don't mean take the bullet when your subordinate's career is about to implode because of something he or she did. What I mean is that you be the buffer between those above you and those below you when you have the chance. If your team, or subordinate, does something that turns out badly, don't let the blame pass through straight to your team. After all this, is your team! You need people that have your back and in turn, you need to have theirs. The best boss I ever worked for exemplified this very well. One of the most important aspects of his job in his eyes was being the one that dealt with his boss if his boss ever became upset about something that happened in the office (his boss was in D.C., while we all worked locally). The rule was "You tell me everything, I'll spin it, and go to bat for you every time I can." Because I knew that if I was straight up honest with my boss about absolutely everything, good or bad, I knew that he would do all he could to help me out. I'd do anything for him and still would today even though that office closed down 18 months ago (political office). In my eyes, he understood what it meant to lead the rest of the office. He took blame when he didn't necessarily deserve it all, and he passed on the credit even when he was responsible for 90% of what happened. He knew that when his employees looked good, it made him look good too.
If you don't have subordinates, then be the type of employee for your boss that you want to have working for you someday.
I'll write more as I think of it, but I'm also interested in seeing what others have to say about what I've said as well as those that will add their own tips / advice to help someone become the leader H/S/W wants them to be