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So how does adcom measure the leadership potential of a candidate?
Excuse me for my ignorance but I am very confused. I believe leaders and managers (especially middle managers) are two contradictory things. Leaders have strong emotional connection to their goals, they inspire the followers with their ideology, they think in long term to make sure that solutions will have a long lasting impact on their organization. Middle managers want to meet the deadline with moderate quality. They don't inspire their sub-ordinates rather their goal is to make sure that job is done on time and upper management is happy. They don't have a long term vision as their goal is to get the work done. Leaders are selfless people whose priority is their organization. Managers look for themselves first, trying to find a way to ensure teh safety of their jobs. Leaders may sacrifice themselevs for meeting their goals, managers sacrifice their subordinates.
While most of the MBA grads will start their career as middle managers, I don't think that you actually need to have leadership qualities to be a manager. You need to know how to drive the people , with fear of losing their job or award for performance or just a feeling of working in a good team.
Have you seen a person in your organization who keeps on arranging meetings after meetings to complete a small task. He invites his bosses and bosses of his bosses to make sure that they notice the work being done.
On the other hand, another person who completes the same task without wasting time on marketing himself. He just invites the concerned people, assigns them the tasks and follows up whenever required.
Clearly you've had bad experiences with managers at your organization.
I agree that leadership is about more than just having people report to you. It is about inspiring people, keeping them motivated, and proving that they can accomplish more than they originally thought.
One does not need to be a manager to be a leader. On the other hand, being a manager does not preclude one from having leadership abilities.
So how does the adcom measure leadership potential? They look for experiences where you have inspired followers and made significant achievements. Org structure is irrelevant.
Just my 2 cents.
PS - Leadership is a skill, as is navigating corporate politics.