5 Ways to demonstrate leadership in an MBA app no management experience
Updated: Feb 1
Manager ≠ Leader
Demonstrations of leadership form the backbone of many successful MBA applications. But this doesn’t mean that all applicants who get into top business schools are C-suite executives, entrepreneurs, or managers who managed teams.
Many cultivated leadership in other ways. Some took initiative without being asked to, went one step beyond their predefined job roles to add value, mentored a new teammate to cope with the demands of their new role, or volunteered for social causes to give back to the community.
Here are 5 ways you can demonstrate leadership in your MBA applications, even when you don’t have formal management responsibility in the office:
1. Be a self-starter
Show that you’ve been proactive in voicing that you want more leadership opportunities. Demonstrate that you took an interest in what was happening in other departments and volunteered for multidisciplinary teamwork.
If you were given a new assignment, show that you didn’t just stick to it like a laundry list, but went the extra mile. If you saw an opportunity or a solution to a problem no one noticed and offered to lead it. This could be anything from a “go-green” project or mentoring new employees. That’s the sort of thing admission committees (and bosses) are looking for.
In short, show that you took ownership. That you think and act like an owner.
2. Step out of your comfort zone
MBA programs want candidates with the drive to learn and improve, because learning doesn’t happen when you’re stagnant.
Show how you stepped out of your comfort zone, when you demonstrated global leadership qualities, and that you are comfortable with cultural diversity. Or how you volunteered to help overseas colleagues, learn a foreign language or spend a year abroad to gain intercultural business nuances.
This is particularly important for applications to business schools like INSEAD or London Business School, which pride themselves on their international cohorts.
3. Thinking outside the box
“The world is (y)our incubator. MIT Sloan is about invention. It's about ideas made to matter. Here, we discover tomorrow’s interesting and important challenges. We go where we want to have an impact. And then, we invent the future.”
MIT Sloan MBA
“Change starts here. Change lives, change organizations, change the world. Our motto is more than words — ideas started here have fundamentally changed how the world works, connects, and lives.”
Stanford, GSB MBA
“Helping you tackle world-scale problems, Oxford's MBA is a one-year programme for a complex, fragile and increasingly connected world.”
Oxford Saïd MBA
Top MBA programs recruit candidates who show potential to become the global leaders of tomorrow. They want to see that you can think outside of the box.
Have you found innovative ways to improve productivity? Can you show you brought a fresher perspective to solve a particularly thorny challenge?
B-schools want candidates who get stuck in and go the extra mile. Average doesn’t cut it. For example, think of a time when you didn’t follow the conventional path to tackle a client problem. Or when you executed a new and different strategy that was recognized by senior management and promotion.
4. Build trust with your team
Building trust and confidence in your team, speaking up when needed, and putting forward innovative ideas all help promote teamwork. Companies like Apple aren’t great because legions of smart engineers sit in cubicles designing products. They’re great because the bosses develop highly effective teams that trust each other.
So, think of ways that you boosted your team’s morale, helped a struggling colleague, or stepped-up when your manager was juggling too many responsibilities. You could show how you brought your teammates together and created a culture of helping each other out.
And it’s not all about the workplace. You can also use examples from your extracurriculars and work in your community. You can show how you have inspired a community to change, pushed ideas and delivered goals to improve outcomes for your neighborhood.
For example, here is an excerpt from an essay showing leadership in a community:
“My dream of studying abroad was often hamstrung by one insecurity: English. In my rural town of Dharwad, India, I didn’t have access to the same language learning opportunities that students in urban cities had. So, I did something about it.
With the help of donations and hand-me-downs, I started a little library of my own. Soon, friends and other young adults from my community began inquiring. Inspired by the idea of motivating each other to study, I decided to start an English club in my own backyard. Through broken phrases and misplaced adverbs, we banded together with one goal - to increase the opportunities we had. Some of us went on to get jobs in bigger cities, others enrolled in formal English courses, and some - like me - followed their dream to study abroad.”
5. Don’t be scared to change course
An important aspect of leading is being able to step back, put things in perspective, and self-reflect. If you overcommitted more than you could possibly deliver, or made a mistake during the execution, show that you acknowledged it. Humility is one of the keys to effective leadership, because it shows maturity. In your application, consider using stories of times when you ran into roadblocks and course-corrected, as this will demonstrate your growth-oriented mindset, a key leadership trait.
Looking to demonstrate leadership without formal managerial responsibility, and wondering how to weave these leadership qualities into your business school application essays? That’s why we’re here. Book a chat!