Talking About Leadership in the MBA Application

April 2 2013

Guess what.  Six months from now we will be at the beginning of October. Shocking, isn't it, that those of you who are thinking of applying to business school in the first round have only six months to figure it all out. You've got a lot of tactical moves ahead of you, like taking the GMAT and visiting potential schools while students are around and feeling on top of the world, and impressing your recommenders with your leadership skills.

How Admissions Officers View Leadership

Your biggest goal in the MBA admissions process is to demonstrate leadership. Business schools may have leadership classes, workshops, or what Stanford calls “Leadership Labs,” but the schools are not working with blank slates. Admissions committees are actively seeking candidates with great leadership potential. This potential can be demonstrated through a record of traditional leadership activities, such running your undergraduate student senate or having several employees reporting to you. Or just a team leader on a visible project. But then there's another kind of leadership, and its a lot more nuanced than just a title on a resume.

“Leadership encompasses much more than managing people,” wrote Rosemaria Martinelli, former director of Admissions at the University Of Chicago Booth School of Business in a blog post.  Current research now equates leadership with influence, or the ability to motivate others toward a shared goal. Stanford Graduate School of Business’ recommendation form includes a “Leadership Behavior Grid” with traits such as initiative, influence and collaboration, developing others, and trustworthiness. Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business defines leadership as “the ability to inspire others to strive and enable them to accomplish great things." They are not looking for individual excellence.  It's about the broader effort. 

Leadership can mean anything from running a classroom to being the idea person in your work group, from standing up for an unpopular position to organizing a clothing drive. In a nutshell, leadership is about finding the passion inside you and acting on it. To quote the Stanford GSB motto: Change Lives. Change Organizations. Change the World.

The Essence of Leadership

Business schools are actively searching for students with high emotional intelligence. In a seminal 1998 Harvard Business Review article, “What Makes a Leader,” Daniel Goleman attempted to answer the question with specific attributes of effective leaders. Goleman, who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence with his book of the same name, wrote in the HBR article, “It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant....They do matter, but mainly as ‘threshold capabilities.’ But…emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership.”

Goleman’s model of emotional intelligence has dramatically improved the global discussion of leadership. In his research of nearly 200 large, global companies, Goleman found that

while the qualities traditionally associated with leadership – such as intelligence, toughness, determination, and vision – are required for success, they are insufficient. Truly effective leaders are also distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

I'll be writing more about these five components in the coming weeks. Indeed, these traits are a little touchy-feely.  But then, so is business school admissions.


Contact Betsy Massar at at or her website for a consultation on potential school choices. Betsy is one of the original 85 Broads. She graduated from Harvard Business School and worked at Goldman Sachs on 85 Broad Street in her first post-MBA job. She has since worked in London, Asia, and in Silicon Valley on the investment banking, institutional sales, and investment management marketing businesses.  An award-winning business writer, Betsy is also a resume coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.  Admitted, An Interactive Workbook for Getting Into a Top MBA Program, is the first book published by 85 Broads. More info can be found at the Admitted website.

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