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How to Position Your MBA Leadership Potential

When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, Donald Trump was 14 years old.

Long before Twitter, Kennedy knew the importance of galvanizing others with a short and inspiring line: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” What did young Donald make of this inspiring, generation-defining phrase?

What does Kennedy’s line mean to you? If you had the chance, what would you say to prove your leadership potential, or to demonstrate what you can do for others?

You don’t need to be sworn in to high office to reflect on either of these questions—applying for your MBA is the perfect opportunity.

From Harvard to Haas, adcom wants to see your leadership credentials and potential – how you have led a team, made a positive impact, mentored others, gone above and beyond duty.

And whether you are thinking about your contribution to Stanford GSB, National Week at INSEAD, or collaboration at Tuck, your b-school application is an ideal opportunity to showcase what you bring to your school community, its alumni network and beyond.

Conveying your leadership potential or collaborative spirit requires more than firing off a Tweet. Think of Abraham Lincoln, who so carefully considered speaking in terms of ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. The same is true for your application essays – they require thoughtful introspection and self-awareness about who you are, what motivates you and what you want to accomplish.

To secure your place at business school, you don’t need the oratory of Kennedy or the prose of Lincoln – but the best candidates take time to think about their guiding values and leadership potential before sitting down to write. To help you through this process, we tapped our team at Fortuna Admissions, former senior admissions staff at top tier schools from Wharton and Harvard to INSEAD and LBS. Consider these tips on capturing and conveying leadership potential in your MBA application:

Find Stories with Specific Scenarios

Schools are firmly of the belief that past performance is the most accurate predictor of your future potential. As such, it’s important to refer to clear, concrete examples of your leadership in action. What stories can you tell to convey your leadership qualities and capacities? Start by reflecting on scenarios like these:

  • A project you initiated (from action to outcome)
  • When you identified an opportunity (from action to result)
  • A time you made an impact
  • The most challenging team project you led, and how you ensured its success

Next, begin to articulate your ideas from the big picture to detail by setting the scene and getting quickly to the point. Imagine recent, positive situations and ensure your stories have a beginning, middle and end. You’ll want to convey what you did, why you did it, the impact on others and the final outcome.

Show Your Experience

It’s great if you’ve had direct leadership experience at work, for example, in team management. But not all positions offer supervisory roles (e.g., finance folks may find themselves in advisory positions where people management isn’t requisite). Share scenarios outside your job where you’ve exhibited leadership—from sports commitments to volunteer positions or community involvement. These offer chances to highlight other skills and experiences. So if you’ve been active on a hockey team or local board, this is an opportunity to spotlight your passion as well as your leadership skills. For example:

  • How have you been a mentor?
  • What is your coaching style?
  • When have you succeeded in garnering resources for something you believed in?
  • How did you influence a decision or guide a process that had a big impact?
  • When did you step up to advance the success of a group or outcome?

If you are applying to b-school later in the year or future admissions season, it’s never too soon to start building your leadership profile. Consider how to invite more leadership opportunities on the job, for example, by taking the initiative on something that’s beyond your regular scope of work. Don’t hesitate to let your supervisors know that you’re considering an MBA, if appropriate, and are seeking opportunities to gain stand-out experiences. It gives them a chance to think of you first when looking for team members to take on additional responsibilities.

Weigh your capacity to take on extracurriculars, such as leading a fundraising initiative or coaching a team. Your personal passions can speak to leadership qualities that go beyond managing others within the office.

Define Your Core Skills

When positioning your leadership experience in the application, it can be useful to break down leadership into core skills. Reflect on these six elements:

  • Strategic thinking – how are you action-oriented, focusing on outcomes while keeping a bigger vision in mind?
  • Results oriented – can you be efficient, effective and evolutionary in terms of both product and process?
  • Team leadership – from supervision to mentoring, how do you nurture collaboration and motivate action?
  • Partnership building – do you seek synergies that amplify impact, from within your team to teams and sectors across your company or field?
  • Communication – do you articulate complexity in a clear and powerful way, and are you skilled at segmenting your message by audience and persuading others?
  • Development – have you extended beyond your own personal and professional development to foster and retain talent? How well do you identify and activate others’ strengths?

Ideally, you should find some examples that highlight various aspects of leadership for each of the skills above.

What Do Other People Say?

It’s great to be your own advocate, but what can others say about you? Talk to your recommenders about reinforcing your best stories and lifting up your leadership qualities and skills. They should back up your claims about your leadership style and potential. For example, if you have a story related to your leadership on a specific project, it gives you more credibility if your recommender also cites this example and discusses the qualities you exhibited.

Memorable leaders face moments of challenge and uncertainty as an opportunity to unify, motivate others and deliver an inspiring vision for the future. As Donald Trump becomes the next US president on inauguration day, spectators and citizens will be scrutinizing the message as well as the man. Any candidate, business or political, needs to make a compelling case for his or her leadership potential. How can you make yours?


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