Demonstrating Leadership Potential in your MBA Application

MBA admissions committees are interested in your past leadership achievements as a way to gauge your future promise as a leader – your “leadership potential.”

Most applicants know that showcasing leadership is critical to earning an acceptance letter from one of the top MBA programs. But you probably won’t find the question “Are you a leader?” in an MBA application form. Instead, admissions committees will be combing through your resume, essays, recommendation letters, and interview responses for evidence that you can rally other people together and motivate them to work with one another to achieve an important shared vision or goal.

To prove to MBA admissions committees that you have the potential to lead, you first need to understand what leadership potential is. At MBA Prep School, we define leadership potential as a collection of strengths fueled by passion and directed by purpose. In this article, we will take this a step at a time and show you how to demonstrate leadership potential in your MBA application.

The first step in showcasing your ability to lead is to highlight the past times you have demonstrated leadership. Proving that you are a leader begins with assembling the content building blocks of your Leadership Portfolio – the collection of past experiences, initiatives, and accomplishments that are indicative of your abilities to lead others. What’s in your Leadership Portfolio? We tell you where to look and provide an example of how a past MBA Prep School client assembled the Leadership Portfolio she featured in her MBA application.

How to Build Your Leadership Portfolio

The depth and breadth of your Leadership Portfolio might very well be the determining factor in whether or not a top business school accepts you. An applicant to art school would begin the application process by assembling a portfolio of their past work. An MBA applicant must gather examples of their ability to lead.

Your Leadership Portfolio is comprised of:

  1. Leadership Stories
  2. Leadership Actions
  3. Leadership Capabilities

Let’s walk through each content building block in more detail. Along the way, we will show you how “Susan,” a software engineer, assembled the content building blocks for her Leadership Portfolio.

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Leadership Stories: “What You Accomplished as a Leader”

Some candidates are initially intimidated when asked to present their Leadership Portfolio. Their initial fear is that they don’t have one because they haven’t turned around a failing company, founded a not-for-profit, or saved a village.

Business schools understand that your prime leadership years are still ahead of you. What they really want to see in your portfolio is a “habit” of leadership and some good examples of how you’ve led on a smaller scale. Those might include stories about leading a classroom, organizing recruiting for your company at your alma mater, spearheading a fundraiser, or coaching a little league baseball team. Leading in ordinary situations but doing it “extraordinarily well” is what admissions committees care about when examining prospective MBAs’ Leadership Portfolios.

Begin by brainstorming a list of your most significant leadership achievements thus far. Get as many ideas down on paper as possible. You are looking for the times when you spotted a problem and coordinated efforts to solve it, convinced people to follow you in a new direction, took charge of a team, or mentored others inside or outside of work.

Brainstorming Question: When have I harnessed the energy of other people to achieve a goal, made an impact, and permanently upgraded an organization’s capabilities, or spied a problem and coordinated efforts to solve it?

Later on, you will want to narrow your list down to your best Leadership Stories. First, weed out any individual accomplishments like pulling a week of all-nighters alone in your cubicle or building the ultimate financial model. Keep the stories when you harnessed the energy of other people and made an impact. Put the experiences you enjoyed most at the top of your list of leadership stories. Nature hardwires us to enjoy the things we do well; therefore, if you had fun, chances are you were using your best capabilities as a leader.

Case Study Example

One of our MBA Prep School students, Susan, led a software development team tasked with building software for a medical diagnostic device. Like Susan, you will identify several possible Leadership Stories. Once you have outlined them, you can choose the best ones to feature in your application. As we proceed, we will show you how Susan fleshed out this particular leadership story.

Leadership Actions: “How You Did It”

Your next step is to write down what you actually did when you were playing a leadership role. Your Leadership Actions provide evidence that you didn’t just hold the title of leader – you made a difference and delivered results.

Brainstorming Question: What steps did I take as the team’s leader to overcome challenges and keep people focused and motivated on the team’s key objective?

Case Study Example

In Susan’s case, she set high expectations and stretch goals so that everyone on her team would feel challenged. She also sat down with each of her team members and learned about their career goals, and offered them assignments that they would find challenging and interesting. Another leadership action she could write about was helping her team see that their work had a purpose; she frequently reminded them that their programming work for the medical device they were building would save lives.

Spend time on each of your Leadership Stories and write down some vivid examples of your leadership abilities in action.

Leadership Capabilities: “The Strengths or Skills You Used as a Leader”

The third content building block of your Leadership Portfolio is the list of your top Leadership Capabilities. Your Leadership Capabilities reveal how you lead and the kinds of leadership situations in which you excel. It’s a misconception that Leadership is a single capability – there are many distinct leadership styles and methods. Featuring your unique combination of Leadership Capabilities is a way to differentiate yourself from other applicants.

Business schools are looking for self-aware leaders who know their leadership strengths. Spotting your Leadership Capabilities is a two-step process. First, you should identify the Leadership Capabilities that made you successful in each leadership story. Second, you will review all of your stories and identify the specific Leadership Capabilities that frequently appear – these are your primary Leadership Capabilities.

Brainstorming Question: What Leadership Capabilities did I draw upon in each story?

Case Study Example

Susan identified three unique Leadership Capabilities that made her successful as the leader of the software development team:

  1. Adapting to New Situations
  2. Mentoring & Developing People
  3. Inspiring Others with Words

She was the youngest person on the team by ten years and was also the only female on the team. She had to adapt to this unfamiliar situation and earn team members’ trust before they were willing to follow her. She succeeded by communicating high expectations and by showing the team that their work mattered. She spent time with each team member learning about their development goals and brainstorming ways to achieve them within this project.

Having completed her analysis of this leadership story, Susan has created a valuable building block for her Leadership Portfolio and built awareness of her fundamental Leadership Capabilities.

Choose Your Top Three Leadership Capabilities

Once you have finished analyzing your leadership capabilities in each situation, you need to look at your complete collection of Leadership Stories and Leadership Actions and identify your top three Leadership Capabilities. Those are the strengths that appear most prominently across your collection of leadership stories.

Brainstorming Question: Which of my Leadership Capabilities feature most prominently across my Leadership Stories?

Final Thoughts

MBA schools were founded on the belief that business leaders can make a positive impact on society. MBA admissions committees are looking for future leaders who can make a positive difference in the world and read your essays to search for the promise of great things to come. Understanding your leadership strengths is crucial to building an outstanding MBA application. Your Leadership Portfolio is more than a collection of stories about your leadership achievements – it reveals what qualities and strengths make you a good leader. All this hard work pays off when communicating your leadership potential in your application and admissions interviews.

Constructing your Leadership Portfolio for your MBA applications may seem like a great deal of work, but the time you invest will pay dividends throughout your application process. You will repeatedly return to your Leadership Portfolio to provide the content for your resume, essays, reference letters, and interview responses. Even better, the self-awareness you develop through this exercise will make you a more effective leader in business school and beyond.

Talk to an Admissions Expert

Do you know what admissions officers are looking for and how to stand out from other applicants?

Talk with one of our MBA admissions experts to design a winning application strategy!