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Leadership is a Key Component in Essays

Invariably, b-schools ask applicants to write about their leadership qualities at some point in their essays or in an interview. Sometimes the question is explicit, as in Wharton's "Where in your background would we find evidence of your leadership capacity and/or potential?" Other times, the question of leadership is implicit, as in Stanford's "Tell us about a time when you empowered others" and "Tell us about a time when you had a significant impact on a person, group or organization."

The leadership essay is often the most difficult topic for applicants to handle. Many applicants feel that they can't claim to have held leadership positions in their professional careers without stretching the truth. They think of leadership experience in terms of being someone else's supervisor or of having sole responsibility for a department or project.

The answer to that dilemma lies in recognizing that the schools are interested in your potential for leadership, not just your past history of leadership. Even if you haven't yet held a formal leadership position, you undoubtedly have some ideas about what makes a good leader. The leadership essays are an opportunity for you to discuss the qualities that you believe a leader needs, focusing on the ones you already have and recognizing the ones you hope to cultivate through an MBA education.

If you need help refining your ideas of what leadership means, there's no better place to look than the business schools themselves. This is a sample of what some of the top schools have to say about leadership and its place in business and organizational management:

"Leadership means taking full responsibility for changing an organization for the better." – The Stanford GSB website

"Our view at Darden is that leadership is evident in many qualities such as: the ability to recognize opportunities and problems; social awareness and the flexibility to work with a diverse group; outstanding communication skills; the capacity to shape a vision and enlist others in it; and a bias for action." – Robert Bruner, Dean of the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business

"Any of you who have heard me speak know that I worry that "leadership" can be misunderstood. Sometimes the very word conjures up a powerful figure who charges over the hill yelling "follow me!!" - someone both larger-than-life and louder-than-life! This panel gave me another opportunity to talk about leadership styles being another measure of diversity in the HBS classroom. We are serious about finding out how individuals lead and what happens when leaders listen to each other. Imagine a case with a protagonist grappling with a challenging management team or board of directors. What if he finds him/herself suddenly in the top position at a firm with a culture that rewards a leadership approach very different from his/her natural style? We want to bring together entrepreneurial leaders, those that gravitate to positional authority in complex organizations, thought leaders and hands-on leaders who thrive with small teams." – Dee Leopold, Managing Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, Harvard Business School

Here are some questions that might help you generate the ideas you need to get started on your leadership essays:

  • Have you ever solved a problem for your employer or for an organization you belonged to? How did you do that? Did you see a situation or problem differently than other people did? Did you bring different tools or knowledge to the resolution of the problem? Did you help other people deal with the problem differently, or did you take direct action? Did your actions result in a lasting benefit for the organization?
  • Have you acted as a mentor or teacher for people who were new to your organization? Have you played a role in deciding what knowledge or training new staff members needed to perform well? Have you made suggestions about how to improve employee training or retention?
  • Have you ever had to work with someone whose idea of leadership conflicted with yours? How did you handle that conflict? Did the experience change your ideas about what a leader is or of how you should interact with leaders?
  • Have you ever suggested a new product or program for your employer or another group? How did you come up with that idea? Did you have to gain others' support, or gather resources, in order to implement your plan? How did you do that?

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