How to Look Like a Leader (Even if You Don’t Think You Are)

“Oh, crap! I was never involved in any extracurricular activities during college. I don’t have any leadership experience to show. Now I have to talk about all this leadership stuff in my b-school apps. What do I do?”

Not having leadership experience is one of the most common hurdles applicants face when they start preparing their applications. Demonstrating a track record of leadership is vital to get into HBS, Stanford, or any top school. It’s a problem you can’t dance around and close your eyes to, hoping the adcoms will miss.

Fortunately, we have a solution. A real solution, not simply a tactic or awkward patch. You can’t create leadership experience where none exists, but you can dig deep and find real leadership experiences to talk about.

So what’s the solution?

Applicants who panic about not having leadership experience are typically those who never had formal leadership roles in the traditional sense. In other words, you weren’t the president of your student body, you never held an officer position in a club, you never started a nonprofit organization, and you never captained a sports team. This includes all of you introverts out there. You know who you are: You perceive leaders to be social butterflies who enjoy being in the limelight, making speeches, and giving themselves fancy titles while you’re more comfortable fading into the background and doing the grunt work.

The truth is that almost everyone has demonstrated leadership at some point in his life and that it may not even have looked like leadership to you, then or now. Leadership often comes in subtle forms and in subtle moments. Unless you’re a total recluse who has never interacted with another human being, it’s likely you’ve been a leader in some way at some point in your life.

Admissions officers want to hear stories about instances of genuine leadership. Fancy titles can help create the image of a leader, but powerful stories of real leadership are what move the hearts of TPTB (the powers that be). After all, anyone can call himself a leader, but not everyone can actually pull it off in real life.

Your mission? Dig deep to uncover those times in your life when you demonstrated leadership. You may not even recognize your role in these situations as one of leadership, so here are some tips for thinking outside the box.

Don’t overlook these great leadership moments

Think about the following examples. Do you see yourself in any of these situations? Then you’re a leader.

  • Mentoring a fellow colleague or student. Strong leaders help others succeed. Strong leaders put their own interests aside and help those around them do their jobs better. Strong leaders serve others. Mentorship doesn’t have to be a long-term relationship; it can even occur when you identify an issue someone is struggling with and help him find a solution.
  • Being infuriated about something and taking action. It doesn’t matter what pissed you off. If you did something about it, that’s demonstrating leadership—especially if you brought other people onboard. Taking the initiative to shoulder responsibility for something is leadership. Being able to organize people around a cause is leadership.
  • Gaining the support of others to accomplish a goal, even if you did it quietly. Similarly, corralling others toward a goal is a great example of leadership. You don’t have to be the one at the podium, making a heroic speech. You can be the one who gathers support quietly by collecting signatures on a petition or aligning key influencers through one-on-one conversations.
  • Organizing something (anything). We never give enough credit to people who plan events. Getting people together to do something is an act of leadership. It requires selling ideas to people, convincing them that something is worth their time. It requires getting everyone to play together nicely. It’s about getting something done that wouldn’t otherwise have gotten done at all. Organizer isn’t a glamorous title, but, then again, leadership isn’t a glamorous role. Effective organizers have amazing leadership qualities. Barack Obama was a community “organizer” before he became president of the United States. Think about that.
  • Getting others to go above and beyond. Have you ever gotten someone to do something outside the scope of his normal responsibilities? Did you ever get someone to stay late, even if he didn’t have to? If your answer is yes, you empowered or inspired that person. That’s what leaders do.

Notice in these examples that it’s not about titles you’ve held or grand things you’ve accomplished. It’s about the subtle, perhaps underappreciated actions you took to accomplish something. Heck, you probably didn’t even get any credit for it. This brand of leadership may not be loud and in your face, but it’s authentic and shows potential for true greatness in future leadership roles.

Tell your stories effectively

A heartfelt story is a genuine one, and the easiest way to be genuine is to focus on the process, not the end results. It’s the process—and not the end results—that reveals great insight into the behavior and mindset of leaders. Include plenty of details, because details are what make the process engaging to read. Here are a few examples:

  • If you rallied for healthier lunch food at your workplace, how did you convince people to take action? Did you write a memo and have people sign a petition? Did you hold a company-wide meeting? How did you decide whom to talk to? What did you tell people to convince them to help you?
  • If you had to stay late to finish a project that required the help of others who weren’t necessarily going to get credit for it, how did you convince them to do it? What specific things did you say and do?
  • If you helped improve company culture, how did you do it? Did you write a new mission statement? How did you get buy-in? Did you approach people one by one? Whom did you decide to talk to? Why? Did you organize culture-building company events? If so, what kinds of events? How did you do it? Why did it help?

The key to writing a great b-school application is to highlight those moments when you demonstrated leadership. Having a bunch of fancy titles on your resume and in your application is an easy way to shout, “Look at me! I’m a leader!” But if you describe your moments of leadership in a very real and very human way that offers a glimpse into your motivation, you can demonstrate leadership much more effectively and authentically. And that, my friends, is how you win the hearts of admissions officers.

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