Writing a Successful Leadership Story Essay

Leadership Story essays are a prime opportunity in your MBA applications to communicate experiences that demonstrate your ability to lead others.

MBA admissions officers are very interested in your leadership achievements, both inside and outside of work. And yet, you probably won’t be directly asked, “Are you a leader?” Instead, applications will prompt you to tell stories about your leadership achievements.

Typical essay questions that have appeared on past MBA applications related to the topic of leadership include the following:

  • Discuss a defining experience in your leadership development.
  • Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
  • What impact do you hope to have as a leader of consequence in the future?

To score top marks with your answer to these MBA leadership essay questions, admissions officers will expect you to present real-world evidence that you are equipped to rally other people and motivate them to work together to achieve an important shared vision or goal.

Why do admissions committees ask you to write about a leadership story? What are the characteristics of a great answer? This article answers these questions and provides you with a set of building blocks for crafting a unique and powerful Leadership Story Essay of your own.

In the final section of this article, we analyze a Leadership Story Essay example to show you the principles in this article in action.

To begin, let’s explore what MBA programs mean by “leadership” in the first place.

What Does it Mean to Lead?

If you were applying to art school, you’d present a portfolio of your artistry. Similarly, business schools are interested in seeing a portfolio of leadership stories. Reviewing a collection of leadership accomplishments is one way the admission committee assesses a candidate’s leadership potential. If a top MBA program’s job is to produce future leaders, the admissions committee must determine if you already possess the raw ability to lead.

Many aspiring MBA students are aware that they need to demonstrate leadership and prove they have leadership potential. But how do they do that in an essay? And what is leadership anyway?

Leadership ability relates to your capacity to motivate and influence individuals, teams, and organizations. Some MBA candidates are intimidated when they have to answer a leadership essay question in their application because they worry they don’t have impressive leadership stories to tell.

Don’t fret. Admissions committees understand you are early in your career, and they don’t expect you to have founded a not-for-profit or saved a village. Instead, they can appreciate that your leadership stories are on a smaller scale, such as leading a classroom, spearheading a fundraiser, or coaching a little league baseball team. Leading in “ordinary situations” but doing it “extraordinarily well” is what impresses admissions committees.

Hopefully, by now, we’ve eased your doubts about Leadership Story Essays and helped you better understand the definition of leadership. If so, it’s time for you to start brainstorming which leadership stories you want to tell.

Qualities of a Standout Leadership Story Essay

To review: your leadership stories are the collection of past experiences, initiatives, and accomplishments indicative of your leadership abilities. MBA admissions committees want to know about your past leadership experiences to assess your potential to lead in the future.

Let’s look at the characteristics of an outstanding Leadership Story Essay.

  1. Your Leadership Story Essay should provide evidence that you can rally other people and motivate them to work together to achieve an important shared vision or goal. Many candidates make the mistake of telling a story about an individual accomplishment when asked for a leadership story. The whole point of a leadership story is that you couldn’t have achieved what you achieved if you were operating alone.
  2. Admissions committees want to see evidence that you can work collaboratively as part of a team. If your leadership style appears authoritarian or self-serving, you may be passed over for candidates with more team-oriented leadership styles.
  3. Stories in which everything went smoothly and as expected aren’t as powerful as stories where you faced challenges and obstacles and found creative solutions to mission-critical problems.
  4. When selecting among potential stories, ask yourself which leadership experience ended up being a defining experience for you – one that taught you how to lead and what it means to lead.
  5. It’s always better to choose a leadership story that holds meaning for you – for example, leading a fundraiser for a non-profit with a mission that is close to your heart.
  6. Results matter – the admissions committee wants to know how you made an impact. There is a premium placed on stories that end with a visible and, if possible, measurable impact.
  7. Good leaders put the needs of others and the organization ahead of personal ambitions. If you helped others excel and succeed while in the lead, then you’ll have a much more persuasive essay.

With these criteria in mind, you can begin brainstorming your leadership stories and select the one that provides the most convincing evidence of your leadership potential.

Next, we will walk through the content building blocks for crafting a unique and powerful Leadership Story Essay and share an example essay to show you how all of these principles come together in an outstanding MBA essay.

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Content Building Blocks for a Leadership Story Essay

Leadership Story Essays are narrative essays, which means they are invitations for you to tell a story. Therefore, the content building blocks we provide below will help you to craft your story.

The first principle they teach you in a creative writing course is that a good story has a beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning of your story should include a Hook and a Lead.

A Hook is what it sounds like: an opening that engages your reader and builds interest in hearing your story. The best hooks are unexpected and build anticipation. You’ll see an example of a hook in the sample essay.

The next building block is the Lead. A story lead summarizes what the story is about and gives your reader a sense of why you decided to tell this story.

You have only a few seconds to capture your reader’s attention, so you want to get to the lead of the story as quickly as possible. The “lead” of your story gets your reader on board and silences that internal voice asking, “What’s this story about? And is it going to answer the essay question asked?”.

Once the reader is hooked, you are ready to tell your story. The content building blocks for the middle, or body of the story, should follow the STAR Framework. STAR is an acronym that stands for — SituationTaskActionResult.

The STAR framework is powerful because it describes a structure that most stories follow.

You begin by providing the Situation of the story, which orients the reader to the setting and introduces the conflict or complication.

Next, since you are writing a story about a time you took the lead, you want your reader to know what Task you and your team needed to accomplish. Think of the Task as your role in the story and your specific goals or objectives as a leader in this particular situation.

From there, it’s time to share the Action, or what you did to resolve the conflict, fulfill your role, and achieve your objectives or goals. It’s important to remember that everything leading up to the Action (Situation and Task) is exposition. A good storyteller aims to get through that set-up as quickly as possible, so action becomes the story’s focal point. Action is what admission committees are interested in — not exposition. Therefore, on balance, “action” should take up about 75% of the word count of the leadership stories you tell.

When it comes to action, the more specific you can be, the better. Generic action statements, such as “I assembled the team, got them focused, and finished the project,” aren’t sufficient. Tell the reader about the obstacles you faced as a leader and the creative, clever, and unexpected ways you overcame them.

Outlining the story’s action is a crucial moment in testing the quality of your leadership story. If there’s not enough leadership action, then the story probably won’t work, and you should think of another story to tell.

Your story ends when you share the Results, or the impact of your actions, and the final resolution of the complication. Evidence of results is almost as critical as action when you’re trying to assess the quality of your story – a positive outcome makes the story that much more powerful.

If your story doesn’t “pay off,” it may not fly. That’s not the same thing as saying that you have to have achieved what you set out to. The pay-off might be the lessons you learned or how you grew from the experience.

Applying the STAR Framework

Let’s take a look at the STAR framework created by an MBA candidate. He outlined a story about leading a marketing field study project in college.

For our example applicant, the Situation was that during his senior year in college, he assembled a team of marketing and industrial design students to co-design a pair of sneakers for Nike.

As the team’s leader, his Task was to assemble the team and get them to work cooperatively to design a pair of sneakers. He decided to focus the Action of the story on the things he did to get his teammates to bond and work together to achieve their goals.

The Result of the project was two-fold: first, the team delivered the marketing plans and sneaker design for a skateboard shoe; second, the author learned how to lead a diverse group of people.

Voila. The story’s setting, the applicant’s goal, what he did, how things turned out, and some notes about what he learned from the experience are outlined. He’s captured the elements of a promising Leadership Story Essay.

While your STAR outline is likely to include more details than our example, you can see how the STAR outline can help you tell a concise story with a beginning, middle, and end. A STAR outline also enables you to see pretty quickly if your outline has the makings of a successful leadership essay.

Below you can read an excerpt from the example essay that resulted by assembling these content building blocks. Review the sample essay carefully, and then you will be ready to get to work writing your Leadership Story Essay.

Leadership Story Essay Sample

Like most kids in my neighborhood, I owned a skateboard. Honestly, I never quite got the hang of it. Though I will never shred the pavement or fly high above a half-pipe, I did get to do something most skateboarders will never do: in college, I led a six-person team that designed a skateboard shoe for Nike.

In my senior year, I convinced my thesis adviser at the University of Oregon that instead of writing a research report describing how Nike designs and develops athletic shoes, I wanted to “Just do it!” With his blessing, I convinced the Nike Design Group to sponsor a team of three marketing students, including me, and three industrial design students to co-design a sneaker for them.

As the project leader, my role was to assemble the team and lead them in designing a pair of skateboarding sneakers. Recruiting teammates was relatively easy; marketing and design students jumped at the chance to work on a project for Nike. The real challenge, once I had my team selected, was to get the marketing students and ID students to work together — we had such different working styles and perspectives.

For our project kick-off meeting, I invited my teammates to my apartment to eat pizza and watch Dogtown and the Z Boys, a classic skateboarding movie. Watching the film inspired us and broke the ice. In our next meeting, I came up with the idea of a teach-in. We taught them about our market research process, and they taught us about their design process. After that, we sketched out a method for working together…

[The body of the story features the leader’s other challenges and achievements before turning to the conclusion]

…We flew to Beaverton to present our skateboard sneaker to the head of Design. A year later, Nike released its first skateboard shoe. Though it was different from our model, our team’s work had clearly influenced the design and marketing of a new product for the legendary sneaker company.

For me, the ultimate reward wasn’t designing the sneaker; it was designing and leading the team. We started from such different perspectives and points of view and ended up gelling as a team.

The experience taught me how beneficial those differences are when you are creating something new. This lesson has been instrumental in my success in the software product strategy role I started after college.

Final Thoughts

Business schools understand that your best leadership experiences are still ahead of you. What they want to see is a “habit” of leadership and some good examples of how you’ve led on a smaller scale. Leading in ordinary situations but doing it “extraordinarily well” is what admissions committees are looking for in your Leadership Story Essay. Done well, your Leadership Story Essay will provide evidence of potential and the promise of great things to come.

Free MBA Essay Writing Course

Please enter your email below to gain 30 days of free access to our MBA Essay Writing course. Learn about the five most frequently asked MBA application essay questions and access our brainstorming tools and sample essays.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.