Writing Your Essays: What Is Leadership?

by Stacy Blackman Consulting, Jan 2, 2012

Youre going to need to figure out the answer to this question very, very soon. Some applications have explicit questions about your defining leadership experiences. While others dont boast a leadership question per se, the best applications will serve up a heavy dose of this particular L word in other essays on personal achievements, passions, etc.

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. Many applicants automatically tag some of their greatest personal achievements as perfect examples of leadership. However, just because you achieved something outstanding does not always mean leadership skills were involved, especially if you did most or all of the work. The work of the leader activates or improves the work of others; find anecdotes in your work and extra-curricular history 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
  • Articulating a vision
  • Resisting conventional approaches; challenging status quo
  • Convincing others of importance of problem
  • Marshaling resources to address problem
  • Motivating others
  • Making good use of others talents
  • Being open to new information, input, etc.
  • Building consensus with appropriate stakeholders
  • Guiding strong mid-course corrections; overcoming mistakes
  • Building on success
  • Permanently upgrading organizations capabilities; institutionalizing solution
  • Illustrating methods for other individuals, organizations, etc.

And 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, captain of the hockey team, director of product development, V.P. of marketing. But what did you do with this position? An editor of a college daily could write about how 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 tons of responsibility, but if you describe your role like that, it sounds exactly the same as the other 798 editors-in-chief of college papers. To write a successful essay, you should define the leadership challenges you faced, not the management challenges. 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?

Collecting impressive titles does not make someone a great leaderhelping a team overcome great challenges does.

For more robust guidance on your MBA application essays, check out the Stacy Blackman Consulting Essay Guide Series school specific guides with essay tips, sample essays, information on what your target schools value and more. Visit http://www.stacyblackman.com/essay-guides/ to learn more.