Look at any business school’s website and you will see that the school’s primary goal is to teach leaders. “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world,” proclaims Harvard Business School’s mission page. Stanford’s leaders are “innovative, insightful, and principled.” Wharton says its leadership programs are “the heart of MBA life.”
Business schools want leaders coming in, and even better leaders coming out.
The good news for students applying for a business degree–and particularly for those who are struggling with their essays right now—is that the definition of leadership is extremely broad. And while there is some debate over what types of leaders are more effective, you can bet that admissions officers are looking for individuals that demonstrate many of the characteristics described in Daniel Goleman’s classic 1998 Harvard Business Review article, What Makes a Leader?
Daniel Goleman, of Emotional Intelligence fame, attempted to answer the question with research into the attributes of effective leaders. “It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant,” he says. “They do matter, but mainly as ‘threshold capabilities.’ But my research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership.”
The Five Components
Goleman’s five components of emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill— comprise a useful framework to use when writing admissions essays. A candidate need not show all of these five components, (nor all of the more specific subcomponents), but should be able to demonstrate a healthy number of these characteristics in her application.
I believe admissions committees consider self-awareness one of the most important characteristics of a mature candidate. According to Goleman, hallmarks of self-awareness include “self-confidence and realistic self-assessment.” Business schools want their students to know who they are, and to understand their own foibles. They recognize that a 27-year old still has a lot to learn, but is still an adult who knows who she is inside as well as the effect she has on others.
Goleman identifies “comfort with ambiguity” and “openness to change,” as hallmarks of the “self-regulation” component of emotional intelligence. Self-regulation separates the good candidates from great candidates. Business life is filled with unpredictable events. The leaders who will excel are the ones who will be able to roll with change, not in a detached way, but realistically. Stuff happens. Sometimes it is good for the bottom line, sometimes not. And sometimes it’s just not clear. If a candidate has an example of achievement in spite of ambiguity, I encourage her to write about it.
The third characteristic is motivation. Most MBA candidates are well-motivated; anyone who has gone through the GMAT ordeal has a strong drive to achieve. According to Goleman, motivation also encompasses, “optimism, even in the face of failure.” Motivation complements the essay questions that ask you to describe your learning from a mistake or failure: not only is a leader to stay motivated when things aren’t going her way, she is also open to learning from her mistakes.
The fourth concept, empathy, was in the news a few months ago when President Obama nominated now-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She was said to bring a “quality of empathy” to the office. Goleman makes clear that empathy isn’t about people-pleasing. Rather, he says, it’s about “thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions.” This could show itself as cross-cultural sensitivity or outstanding service to clients and customers. And for managers, empathy will show up as expertise in building and retaining talent.
Social skill, the fifth characteristic of emotional intelligence, is related to empathy, but shows itself as “a knack for building rapport,” in persuasiveness, and in “effectiveness in leading change.” The words “social skill” can sometimes be misinterpreted, but they are truly important in what makes a leader more than just a manager. Leaders can be diplomatic, and know how to give and receive feedback, and know that that people need to work together to achieve a goal. Social skill helps things work together better.
All five components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill, are important attributes of the kind of person who will succeed in a rigorous MBA program. If you are writing or reviewing your essays now, see if you can stress-test your responses against emotional intelligence characteristics. If they are aligned, you are well on your way. If not, it’s back to the drawing board, but you’ve still got four weeks to go.