Question Bag: What Constitutes A Leader?

Q: My quant factors (GRE & GPA) are all really strong…what I am worried about is my “other” stuff–especially leadership positions. How do I answer the leadership essay that all B-schools require if I don't have any leadership experience?

A: Really? None. Like…ever? Not once has your footprint been stamped on a project you've been part of, no matter how small? Think about it. Seriously–stop and think about it. Stop reading right now and come up with three situations–no matter how seemingly insignificant–whose final outcome contained traces of your contribution. The next paragraph is waaay down the page so stop reading and start thinking.

Aha, gotcha! No more reeeadiiing. Shouldn't be that hard, right? Here, we'll help you start: Complete the following sentence in three different ways:

“The outcome of ________________would have been drastically different were it not for my my_________________.”

“The outcome of ________________would have been drastically different were it not for my my_________________.”

“The outcome of ________________would have been drastically different were it not for my my_________________.”

We've got news for you, folks: that's leadership! (At least in the eyes of grad school adcoms it is).

Listen, the leadership essay, in whatever iteration it's asked, is not about grand titles or your superhuman feats of restoring justice where the bad guys wrought evil. You don't need to have led a crusade…or even a team.

The goal is to demonstrate where you've left your mark on whatever episode you choose to talk about. Word to the wise: Don't go with the first thing that comes to mind–dig a little….then some more.

The crucial thing is not to make the common mistake of thinking leadership means you accomplished something extraordinary in the face of harrowing obstacles; it doesn't. It means you inspired others to do that. The hero of a leadership essay shouldn't be you but rather those whom you made shine.

Let's face it, not everyone has run a municipal fundraiser or been elected president of their graduating class. If this is you, listen up: leadership positions come in more shades and varieties than you're considering.

So…for those of you whose resume lacks superlatives such as Recipient of Congressional Medal of Honor. Twice., here are five oft-overlooked situations that demonstrate leadership qualities:

  • Ever stuck up for someone (or a group of people) who couldn't (or wouldn't) stick up for themselves?
  • Have policies in any setting ever changed because you voiced your opinion about their inefficacy?
  • Do you play a linchpin role in your family–mediator, activity organizer–that demonstrates your ability to marshall forces together and unite people?
  • Have you ever witnessed a car accident and pulled over to begin delegating tasks in a chaotic situation where people aren't thinking very clearly.
  • Are you generally the person in class to raise your hand and ask questions, making it a safe place for other to do the same?

Now you might be thinking to yourself: A few of these are a tad “light”, or are a bit of a stretch to submit as examples of leadership to a vaunted school like Harvard or Haas. You're wrong.

Adcoms don't care if you were director of brand management, manager of your softball team or social chair of a sorority (all good stuff)–those are titles. The leadersip essay should focus instead on examples of galvanizing others to act.

In the absence of any significant leadership positions at work or in an extracurricular capacity, adcoms prefer to see evidence of it in your “real life” to reading yet another boring essay about how you took the initiative to fix the copy machine without your bosses' urging.

So, in sum:

  1. Dig deep. Then take out a take out the cartoon jackhammer and start drilling even deeper. Everyone has leadership experience–successful applicants just work harder to uncover it.
  2. If your “resume” lacks traditional examples of leadership, instead of resorting to uninspired workplace examples, explore less conventional examples that will make you stand out.

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