One way or another, if you apply to business school, you’re going to need to demonstrate that you’re a leader. While this is being asked less explicitly via essay prompts these days, you’re almost guaranteed to be asked about your leadership skills in your interviews. You’ll also want to highlight them in your résumé and online forms, plus have your recommenders underscore them.
Many of my clients are initially concerned that they have big strikes against them in the leadership department because they’ve never had direct reports. “I’m not leading anyone,” they lament. “How am I going to answer these questions?” (The truth is, most MBA applicants don’t directly manage people, though a good percentage get to have some influence over the work of interns, new analysts, support staff, and the like.) But as I tell them, I’ll tell you: “Fear not!” Leadership encompasses a lot more than just having a bunch of people under you.
DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?
For example, do you have a knack for seeing where your organization could go, say five, 10, 20 years down the road? Have you sensed greater possibilities, whether based on research or even hunches? Have you helped set a new direction for a group or organization? If so, you have vision. As we all know, Steve Jobs was a visionary master, anticipating products people would love before they even knew they needed them.
Vision can be strengthened or supported by applying systems thinking, an ability increasingly valued by business schools. Do you tend to look at the bigger picture and take the longer view, paying attention to the levers driving a particular system or taking into the account the health, or lack thereof, of the ecosystem in which your organization is operating? Do you have a good anecdote to share about that? To give a simple example, consider the problem of hunger that faces many developing countries. For decades, wealthier countries assumed that the problem was just one of scarcity and that simply shipping tons of food to countries’ main ports of entry would suffice. However, in many nations, other factors were at play, including vast amounts of corruption (officials might take food for themselves or try to resell it at exorbitant prices), and inadequate infrastructure and transportation (so food might spoil long before it could get to its destination). A lot of food never made it to those who most needed it. While always important, this kind of thinking is critical in an age when we think technology is the solution to everything — sometimes it is, but sometimes the roots of the problem lie elsewhere and throwing technology at a problem masks it.
You can have all the wonderful visions or ideas in the world, but if you can’t get others on board, who cares (unless you are a dictator!)? Consequently, another critical leadership skill is being able to persuade others, and this can often require courage and persistence. Now, you don’t need to create a reality-distortion field as the previously mentioned Steve Jobs was known to do, but you do need to have conviction and be a compelling communicator.
For example, a client of mine named Arjun* was working for a leading PE firm that had just abandoned a deal because, based on their valuation of the company in question, buying it didn’t seem worth it. Disappointed about not closing the deal, Arjun grabbed some KFC on the way home to assuage his sorrow the fatty fast-food way. While digging into his bucket of chicken, he reflected on the franchise business model — and suddenly something clicked! He realized there was a way they could value the business they’d just passed up using a franchise multiple, and this made purchasing the company look very attractive. He excitedly took his innovative idea to his managing director, who practically ridiculed him for it. But Arjun persisted, refining his pitch, and he eventually sold the investment team on the idea. This turned out to be a coup, because soon afterward they were able to sell off the company for double what they paid for it.
MAKING IT SO
You can also have great ideas or vision but do nothing about it. True leaders take initiative and make the things they envision happen. Peter, for example, had found it very challenging to break into PE and felt moved to make the journey easier for others. While he simply could have talked about doing something but not followed through or even proceeded to mentor one or two people, he actually launched a nonprofit PE-mentorship organization. He and his business partner developed resource materials (including practice LBO models, an interview guide, and résumé book); established a recruiter database and contacts; attracted and onboarded mentors; and hosted regular events such as mock interviews, modeling exams, and case studies. Now that’s implementation for you! So as you work on your application, think about mentioning situations in which you’ve crushed execution.
One quality that can help ensure success when taking action is resourcefulness. Quite often we don’t have exactly what we need at our fingertips to pull something off. This might be money, for example. Some of my clients have faced such situations and they had to get clever to resolve them, offering things like free publicity, trades, shared-income opportunities, etc., to potential vendors. Or they may have had to rethink their outreach, switching from paid media to social media. John worked for a particular group in his manufacturing company that had very few dedicated employees, so he often had to pull in engineers from other groups to staff his projects. These people had no obvious incentive to give up their time to him. He quickly learned that he could enroll them by discovering the ways they wanted to develop and giving them opportunities to do that on his project. (I’ve heard that chocolate chip cookies can work in some cases, but I wouldn’t count on that strategy!)
And can you keep people on board — maintain morale — when the going gets tough? Nazir faced this situation when his company in India was bought by a U.S. competitor, and its ranks had shrunk by 50% because of layoffs and attrition. Determined “to improve the situation rather than be a mere observer,” he urged India leadership to develop a “people team,” as their acquirer had to conduct employee-attitude surveys, brainstorm ways to resolve issues, and organize bonding activities such as lunches and off-sites. Discovering that lack of recognition and opportunities to showcase thought leadership were two areas of concern, Nazir presented possible solutions to the people team. As a result, the U.S. counterparts were asked to actively observe and recognize India associates through an employee-recognition feature, a cash reward recognizing exceptional work was instituted, and project work and reporting were redesigned to increase the visibility of the India team’s contributions.
How Would You Define Leadership?
I would define leadership as the ability of any individual, regardless of their status or title, to influence others and achieve a final outcome via team commitment, influence and motivation. Leadership is a highly dynamic and forever changing requirement for all of society in the 21st century and has allowed society as a whole to develop and advance socially and technologically. The concept of leadership and its practice is dependent on a number of different circumstances, environments, teams, values and objectives. As such, leadership can not be restrictive and nor can it remain constant for a sustained period of time. For example, a political leader relies heavily on governance whilst a business leader may be focusing more on strategy and human resource management. Furthermore, leadership pertains to not only the requirements of a specified industry or job title, but the personality traits and individual strengths and requirements of the individual that must lead and achieve an overall outcome for the greater good of an organization or society as a whole.
Throughout my respective management and leadership experiences, I have seen leadership to vary widely, hence supporting my initial statements on its diverse nature. For centuries, academics and well known individuals have attempted to define leadership and essentially establish a structure for teaching others how to lead I believe this to be the wrong way of teaching younger people and children about leadership. Leadership can not be taught or engrained in a student or focus group. Rather, more experienced leaders in society can provide insights into different leadership scenarios and encourage people to incorporate their own traits in defining their own leadership style and how to effectively lead others.
Furthermore, in defining leadership, various leadership styles can be extensively analyzed as they are always present throughout an organization and in different forms. Each individual within an organization has a different leadership style, which vary in their effectiveness in different situations. This is significant as we can learn off the leadership styles of others and determine how certain situations should be encountered and how individuals should be led. Furthermore, leaders can improve their skills by learning off the failures of others. For example, in the corporate world, newly promoted leaders need to learn how to quickly make amends after previous leadership failures and determine how to positively influence others and instill success in their team. In a sense, good leadership is achieved through the use of initiative and individuals trying to find unique ways of achieving an outcome. Subordinates will subsequently respect leaders more if they are willing to exceed all boundaries to achieve a goal, which benefits everyone.
I also believe that leadership should always be related to success and an individual being able to influence others to effect change and achieve an overall outcome. If an individual can not achieve success, than their style needs to be further refined. As discussed earlier, there are a number of mechanism by which leaders can improve their style. The HEC program is one such means by which leaders can theoretically and practically learn how to become more effective and influential.
In conclusion, leadership is primarily based on an individual achieving success through positively influencing others and also developing and advancing further in their respective careers. Future leaders need to learn off the faults of others and be open to change, the use of initiative and listening to their subordinates. It has also been identified in this paper that the beliefs of subordinates also influence the effectiveness of a leader and how they use their team to achieve a task and ultimately, success.