In Search of the Leadership X-Factor in MBA Admissions
The other evening, someone asked me if l had seen the definition of leadership change since I started Master Admissions, and the answer is “absolutely.”
Why do I say that? Because I have personally evolved on what I think a leader is made of, and as a professional MBA admissions consultant, I have seen the schools focus on different characteristics from the time that I began studying the topic.
In thinking about it, from the get-go, I had always thought that leadership was the core of what made a great MBA applicant, then student, and eventually, graduate in the world. But I knew all along that leadership was a very fuzzy word, and that nobody could really define it well. From observers, such as academics and management consultants, and practitioners, such as admissions officers at the top schools and hiring managers at leading-edge companies, it’s been very had to pinpoint its meaning.
Leadership is Not One-Size-Fits-All
Leadership has always been hard to define, and there are a lot of wrong assumptions behind the word “leadership.” An easy, glaring example, is when the world considers a someone a leader because he or she is successful. In my People Analytics course I am taking on Coursera, I was reminded about this point when Wharton professor Cade Massey described “outcome bias.”
The other big problem with defining leadership is that it is hardly one-size-fits-all. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Some leaders are quiet, some are vocal. Some leaders are good at operations, others are good at strategy. Some leaders are advanced in their career, and most interesting to me: some are just starting out.
Let’s Talk About Potential
So how does one identify a leader from someone who is just starting out in their career? This is the biggest question! Sure, if you are going to hire someone with 10 or 15 years of experience to take over a division, then they should have shown leadership by running something. Anything from a project, a team, a division, a company, military unit… that’s easy enough and machines can identify that stuff easily.
But what about people who are just starting out – people with nothing but summer or part-time internships? Or someone who has only worked for a few years, and has no direct, or, actually few indirect reports.
The obvious, and might I say, tired, indicators, are to look to see whether this person has been a senior office in college of a sports team or a club. To me, that’s easy, and everyone in who has been legitimately in this position should take the win.
But what about all those other people who demonstrate emotional intelligence, curiosity, initiative, and collaboration? Are they on the scrap heap of people who will never be deemed “leader”?
Clearly that set of people – the set of people who are able to engender trust from others – that’s someone I would call a leader. And that’s what MBA admissions officers and post-college hiring managers are grappling with: what are the criteria, or indicators of potential success among young professionals?
More Research Please
I’m personally interested in the answer to this question. There’s little organized study on this question, and that’s something I’m working on. I want to understand the body of knowledge that identifies traits in emerging leaders. Will continue to update here; in the meantime, here’s a handy grid of characteristics Stanford Business School considers indicators of leadership performance for prospective applicants.