A lot of people equate leadership to having managerial or supervisory responsibilities. A leader and manager are very different. A manager copes with complexity and brings order and predictability to a situation, whereas a leader shows how to cope with rapid changes. This is not to say that a good manager cannot be a good leader, but it is just that management and leadership are two different beasts. Quoting John P. Kotter– on a high level:
- Management involves planning and budgeting. Leadership involves setting direction.
- Management involves organizing and staffing. Leadership involves aligning people.
- Management provides control and solves problems. Leadership provides motivation.
In short, demonstrating leadership (or even practicing it) does not require you to have people reporting to you.
To demonstrate leadership you can show examples where you have embraced changes and motivating others to do the same in the global world, taken calculated risks to seize opportunities; set the right direction for your team helping them work more efficiently; created alignment among people.
Currently, I am working with an applicant who has demonstrated excellent leadership skills throughout his career spanning six years as a financial consultant at a renowned Financial Services Business Unit in India. During his first six months, this bright candidate volunteered to take up a challenging project which no experienced manager was willing to take up due to the associated risks (stringent operation time-window, no established model to emulate etc.). By accepting the challenge and making it a highly successful project, he demonstrated true leadership qualities of taking a calculated risk and setting a clear direction for people even though he held no reporting responsibilities.
A successful applicant who I recently worked with and who has recently been accepted by the prestigious LBS in MiF program does not have people reporting to him but is still an outstanding leader. He has demonstrated his leadership skills by convincing others of his innovative ideas. He worked tirelessly to prove to the traditionally conservative Swiss bank that adopting modern technology will benefit their customers and bring new business to them. He then executed these ideas with a team on and this bank is reaping the benefits.
Another applicant I have worked with for his INSEAD essays took up the challenge of planning & execution of a project to deliver textile goods at nearly twice the usual rate of production. He overcame the hurdles of communication, planning, cultural gap, shortage of time, and team members 'pessimism and motivated them to work extra hours by adapting to their culture and observing fasts in the month of Ramadan. Thus, he achieved the target deadline successfully by showing leadership qualities of motivating people, showing cultural adaptability, and leading in a crisis. Again– this guy did not have people reporting to him.
Leadership also is also about providing people motivation in different ways: by recognizing and rewarding success, stirring in them a sense of belonging and self -esteem, training and mentoring them to balance long term and short term goals, and leading them in crisis. Thus, leaders show the qualities of charisma, initiative, decisiveness, discipline, empathy, supportiveness, and selflessness.
Now that you have a better understanding of what leadership is, you can look back and look for times when you had demonstrated one or more (note you don’t need to demonstrate all) of these qualities in your professional career. You may also look for instances in your personal life if you have strong leadership experiences to share.
How should you think about your leadership essay?
1. Challenge: Think of a situation when you or your team faced a challenge. Then begin your story with that challenge.
- you volunteered to take up a project what no other manager was willing to take up
- two of your teammates were disputing over an issue that, if not solved, would have a financial impact or any other significant impact on the company
- the production deadline was too stringent
2. Your Response/ Action: Explain how you addressed the hurdles. Answers to the following questions will make leadership essays work:
- How did you come up with a creative solution?
- What were the tactical things you did to overcome people's issues?
- Did you take time to listen to a teammate?
- Did you change your personal style to steer around differences- cultural, functional, gender, age, racial, etc.?
- What other human-level things you did to assuage egos, show gratitude, move people forward?
3. The Outcome: Mention the outcome/ result of the project
This part of the essay may be as short as a sentence, but it does help prove that your leadership had a positive impact.
- It is effective if the outcome is
- But qualitative and human level impacts are also valued since leadership essays are people-centered.
4. Learning: What lessons did you learn from the experience? Make sure of that:
- The lessons learned should stem from your story.
- The end should show that you are reflective and have grown from your experience.
You may also show that your experience has changed your idea of leadership. For example, your story may illustrate that you had an obsolete idea of leadership, but this experience taught you that leadership is about inspiring others to excel.
To sum up, you can make a favorable impression on the Ad Com if your leadership stories highlight the above- mentioned qualities (i.e. setting direction, aligning and motivating people, taking calculated risks, seizing opportunities, etc.) and contain all the four components: challenge, your response, outcome/ result, and learning.