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Resilience as a Leadership Trait in MBA Admissions

resilience as a leadership traitThe essays and recommendations play a big role in MBA admissions, mostly because admissions committees are trying to gauge the candidate’s leadership potential.  When preparing your essays or your briefing sheet for your recommenders, you want to address very specific leadership traits.

Many prospective students ask me what leadership means in MBA admissions.  I completely understand the confusion! The reality is that there is no real textbook definition of leadership, and if there is, but it’s very mushy.  But one element most people agree on as a measurement of a good leader is RESILIENCE.

Executive leadership expert Rebecca Zucker, founder of Next Step Partners, wrote an excellent article on ways to identify and improve your resilience, strategies which “help you prepare yourself so that you will be ready to take on tough challenges, setbacks, difficult experiences or failures when they inevitably happen.”   Here they are in brief; check to see if these are your normal behaviors, or you need a little practice:

  1. Cultivate a growth mindset: A growth mindset looks at setbacks as an opportunity to learn.
  2. Don’t over-ruminate: Reflecting and acting is positive. But morosely wondering “what if”?  leads to unproductive wallowing. Especially stuff that is outside of your control.
  3. Take care of yourself: Be healthy in mind and spirit. Don’t be your own worst enemy.
  4. Seek inspiration: seek out stories of people who have overcome failure. They are everywhere, not just on TED. Or Michael Jordan Nike commercials.

The Resilience Checklist

Rebecca Zucker’s article also includes a resilience checklist – which comes close to helping us define leadership in specific terms that prospective and current MBA students can think about and model. Many of these attributes are similar to those that you will find as part of the MBA recommendations forms.

The full worksheet has 18 behaviors, most of which would work quite well in an essay describing personal leadership in the MBA application.  The first, “I have good knowledge of myself” is probably one of the most important – self-awareness is a particularly useful trait for leaders of all levels, particularly young professionals on a rapid trajectory.

“I am flexible and can adapt to changing situations” might be easier to write about. Businesses are unpredictable. For internal or exogenous reasons, stuff always happens at work, and it’s an asset if you can deal with uncertainty.  If you can incorporate a story of your own personal flexibility in the face of a changing work environment, you’ll be demonstrating resilience and maturity.

“I am able to see multiple perspectives on a situation” is useful for your personal growth; for example, it keeps you from ruminating or getting stuck in a doom loop. But it is also useful for working in teams; small or large there are bound to be as many perspectives on a problem as there are members of the group.

“I am able to ask for help” is a definite statement of strength rather than what looks like a sign of weakness. Digging your way out alone is never pretty (or efficient). You might think that puzzling over a knotty problem and finding the aha moment shows your brilliance, but often the opposite is true.  If you are really in trouble, not asking for help just makes things worse.  At work, if you see that your project is falling apart, get resourceful and find someone who can help you solve your problem.  You might break down a few silos in the process.

It’s Not About You

But sometimes things are just awful, and that’s when personal resilience is about not taking it personally. Lost your job? Had a project taken away? Get a rejection letter from the business school of your dreams?  In all these cases, it’s not necessary that you just put on a happy face. That’s not realistic. But look at contingency plans, your support picture and the longer-term perspective.  The universe hasn’t singled you out of bad news, even though it might feel that way at the moment.

Setbacks, failures, defeats—they are all part of life.  But resilience with grace, humor and grit, that’s what makes a leader.

Read more on leadership and MBA learning:

Some Introspection in Advance of Your MBA Essays

How to Convey Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

Leadership and the MBA Application

What Conan O Brien Teaches Us

Conan the Inspiration

Before talk show host Conan O’Brien gave his heralded graduation speech to the Dartmouth class of 2011, I used to tell clients—rather anyone who would listen—to read his speech to the Harvard Class of 2000.  Speaking before his own alma mater, Conan told students about his own career. About the struggles to become a television writer, about his first panned reviews, and about the hurt, the pain, and the hard work and resiliency required to succeed in a competitive business.

That speech was funny, touching, and painfully true, especially when he told the class,

…Every failure was freeing, and today I’m as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good. So that’s what I wish for all of you—the bad as well as the good. Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally. Know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over.

That was 11 years ago, and now Conan – no surname required– is a household word.  He had achieved amazing successes, but then he went through what he calls “a profound and very public disappointment.”  Still, and this is why I love the guy, and why I feel every day I can learn from him, he transformed and lived his life. He made his own version of success.  He tried new things. And it liberated him.  So now, the story is still never over, when he said in front of the graduating class in Hanover, New Hampshire,

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized…It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a profound catalyst for reinvention.

So when you think about your life, and why you want to go to Harvard Business School, or why you want this job, or why you need to have this success, right here, right now, think about failure. Think about what resiliency teaches you.  And then go write those essays.  Tell the truth about what happened. And then tell the truth about what you learned.  Or are still learning.

As Conan says, “The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”

Yep. What he said.

Watch or download the pdf