“I figured it all out.”
That’s how I would paraphrase the essays many of my clients—MBA applicants and others—write in response to the ubiquitous “Describe a leadership experience” question. Now of course “figuring it all out,” my shorthand for “I came up with a creative solution to a tricky problem” or “I developed a killer spreadsheet model, the likes of which my team had never seen before” or similar achievements, is an important aspect of leadership.
But it’s just one aspect.
Skilled problem-solving, or “thought leadership,” as we called it at McKinsey and Company, where I worked as a business strategy consultant, was the mark of, well, a skilled problem-solver; but many of the most respected consultants at the firm, including senior partners, were equally or even more talented at something we didn’t have a formal name for: people leadership. By effectively leading our thinking on client firms’ problems as well as motivating us to work long hours to develop solutions to these problems and collaborate with our clients on implementing them, these colleagues were exemplary leaders.
So don’t forget to include strong elements of people leadership in your essays. Here are several to keep in mind:
- Rallying others around a vision. Did you convince your team or group to follow a specific path/solution? How did you do it? Successful clients have talked about handling dissenting opinions diplomatically or presenting their teams’ detailed quantitative evidence for a recommendation. The more you can show that you understood your audience and tailored the content and form of your message to them, the better.
- Harnessing others’ strengths—and expanding them. Did you provide team members tasks they could handle comfortably based on their capabilities, as well as opportunities to broaden their skills? For example, you may have handed your quant jock teammate the most complicated operations analysis as well as responsibility for leading a key client meeting. In this way you leverage teammates’ strengths while helping them develop new ones.
- Getting through tough times. Did you model for your team enviable cool in pressure-cooker situations, maybe helping them keep the big-picture goal in mind or lightening the mood with humor? Did you reward teammates with praise, pizza, or both for working long into the night? Did you pitch in on others’ responsibilities as deadlines loomed? Helping your team handle stress while managing your own is a cornerstone of strong leadership.
These are just some of the leadership traits you can show in your essay to make it more compelling. And remember, you don’t have to be in an official position of leadership to demonstrate them. We all know peers who provide great leadership without any formal authority. Make clear that you’re one of them.
By Dr. Sachin Waikar .
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