How to showcase leadership in your MBA application

How can you showcase leadership in your MBA application? Every school asks for this in an MBA application - but what exactly are they looking for and why is it important? Candy Lee LaBalle of LaBalle Admissions explains it all by telling us why a big fat leadership title is not enough, how the five I’s can help you define good leadership, and how to best showcase your leadership on an application.

In short

Leadership in your MBA application

When plowing through yet another MBA application essay outlining your leadership experience and potential, you will be forgiven for wondering why this is so important to business schools. Candy is quick to answer that it is “because an MBA program is actually a leadership degree.” (00:39) Most MBA programs around the world have leadership reflected in their mission statements. Therefore, she points out, “In order for you to convince admissions that you should be in their program, you need to be able to show that you have leadership potential.” (01:14)

Having established that leadership is important for an MBA application, you now need to go about showcasing your particular leadership qualities and potential – no small feat. Luckily, Candy has some great advice to give.

What is leadership?

Before you set out on showcasing leadership in your MBA application, it is good to reflect on what leadership is.

The first thing you need to be aware of is the difference between formal and informal leadership. As Candy explains, “Formal leadership is what we usually think about when we think about leadership,” (00:46) elaborating that these can be roles with official titles such as director, managing teams or workstreams, a role handed over in a family business or a founder of a start-up managing a team.

“Informal leadership is a lot more subtle,” Candy explains, and is “any time that you take the lead even though you’re not the leader.” (03:12) This can come from different areas of work, such as stepping up to take control in a situation where a project team was not performing or bringing together different stakeholders in an informal way.  

Not all leadership is equal. Candy mentions, “Leadership is not the same as a title. You can have a big fat leadership title but just because you have those titles does not mean you’re a good leader.” (04:35) She cautions against “pseudo leadership” – the type of leadership where you did some amazing activities but could not prove actual leadership.

When thinking about good leadership, Candy gives a framework for “a way to think about leadership in your own profile. I like to call the five I’s: Influence, Inspire, Innovate, Initiative, and Impact.” (07:22) She elaborates that this is about getting people moving towards a certain goal, motivating and empowering people by making them believe in themselves, thinking outside of the box and challenging the status quo, raising your hand, and showing the positive effects your leadership had on your company and others.

How to showcase leadership in your MBA application

Even if you have amazing leadership qualities, it is redundant if you do not know how to reflect this in your application. Candy says the best way to tackle this is by remembering four key things when discussing leadership in your application: 

  1. Use your CV
  2. Ensure you have valuable letters of recommendation
  3. Write good essays
  4. Ace your admissions interview  

“Your resume…or CV…is the basic foundation of your application,” Candy explains. Thus, you need to ensure you write your job description in a way that highlights any areas of leadership where you had an impact. (09:32

When it comes to letters of recommendation, Candy stresses the importance of choosing the right people – not the CEO but the person closest to you – and then sitting down with them to explain your application and where they could potentially highlight aspects of your leadership.

Candy further advises answering any essay question in a way that will reflect you as a leader by using concrete examples of where you had an impact. Admissions interviews are probably one of the most important aspects of your MBA application. Candy says, “MBA interviews are a critical part of the process,” so you want to ensure you make the most of it, especially when answering a question about your leadership during the conversation. (11:59)

What if you don’t have leadership experience?

All these ways of showcasing leadership in your MBA application are futile if you think that you do not have any leadership experience. Not a problem, according to Candy who says that you can build leadership before you apply. “You can have impact right where you are,” she states. (13:04

You can do this by looking around your office or your extra-curricular activities and trying to find ways to contribute or by being part of creative responses to issues facing your direct environment.

So, there you have it. After reading Candy’s insights about leadership and tips to showcase leadership in your MBA application, hopefully, your next application will be a little bit easier when it comes to the leadership question.

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