Category Archives: Leadership

MBA Admissions: About You. About More Than You

The military style of management is usually best avoided in MBA admissions because it is not subtle or complex enough for civilian organizations.

MBA Admissions  committees are interested in your leadership style with respect to how you are able to motivate people without resorting to chain of command. To go up to someone’s desk and scream in their ear is hardly going to work in the office. In business, pulling rank usually does more harm than good.

However, occasionally there is something to be gleaned from the military, and here is a video worth two minutes of your time. It features Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, now  Governer-elect of Missouri.

In it he describes his epiphany during ‘Hell Week’ when it dawned on him: “This isn’t about me. This test is about my ability to lead and be of service to the people who are in that tent right now.”

Here’s the point from an MBA admissions perspective:

A lot of applicants describe corporate hazing of one type or another. That is, the 80 hours a week worked, vertical learning curves ascended, all-nighters pulled, jet-lag endured, and so on — in terms of personal gain. “I suffered, I showed perseverance and came though it, and learned a lot, and now I’m a better and stronger person.”

That’s okay as far as it goes.

But the real admissions jackpot comes from being able to see it and frame it in cohort terms. How the pain was all about bearing the load with and for the rest of the group, towards achieving goals for the group.

That is, how your effort was about more than just you. Therefore implying what you will do with your MBA will also be more than just about you.

In this regard, note how often MBA admissions instructions from Adcoms conspicuously remind you how leadership is about collective responsibility.

Here’s one from MIT Sloan a few years back: “We seek to enroll well-rounded individuals with the following characteristics:

  • Success in your professional endeavors (whether you are well into your career or a college senior)
  • Ability to collaborate to accomplish a common goal
  • Drive to inspire others to achieve success
  • Vision to seek alternative solutions to existing challenges
  • Pursuit of meaningful goals.”

Why A Bad Boss Can Make For A Good MBA Admissions Essay

Unless you are independently wealthy or have been lucky enough to work for yourself all your life, chances are you’ve had a bad boss or have a partner or friend who has had.

You know the type: the boss who sets stretch tasks and but witholds the team resources to achieve them. Who talks about you taking more responsibility and the micromanages you. Who offers a grunt when you ace a project, but chews you over for 20 minutes because of a minor error. Who takes credit up the chain for great work you do, but won’t cover for you when deadlines slip…

I wrote about this here on this site years ago, and  was reminded of it again due to leadership sites I follow. At the time, my client had been doing everything right, killing himself to complete complex operations-IT projects, plus studying nights for an MS degree and managing a young family.

His boss committed all of the above evils and more. She would casually set him ‘by-close-of-business today” tasks late in the day, interfere in carefully nurtured team relationships he had built up over months, use fear of termination to crack the whip… and the list goes on.

At the first possible moment, he quit. Yay.

Listening to this phase of his life, I could at least offer some consolation. After the event, what he had was fabulous experience for his future role as a manager and leader, all of which would play well in an MBA admissions essay.

Why? Because if you have experienced having your motivation sapped, having to walk on eggshells around an idiot who controls you, having to grind your teeth in frustration at not being able to implement an obvious innovation — that is, if you have been poorly managed yourself, you have excellent insight into what not to do.

And therefore, reversing all that a bad boss does, you have a good idea what kind of leader you should be, and therefore are likely to be.

And for MBA admissions essay or interview purposes, your bad-boss story is a “proof event” showing you have been through real learning about management and have developed insights into how to handle people under you, and are therefore ready to manage effectively when your turn comes.

Nelson Mandela was “a Sinner who Kept on Trying”

Much as been written in the past week about the leadership virtues of Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela. I certainly endorse the sentiments, and tip my hat at the passing of one of the truly great leaders in human history.

From an MBA Admissions perspective, what I found particularly useful was what President Barack Obama said at the Mandela memorial service in Soweto, Johannesburg, which was:

“Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. ‘I’m not a saint,’ he said, ‘unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.’

“It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection – because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried – that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood – a son and husband, a father and a friend. That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still.”

The lesson? To be a great leader or executive manager, you don’t need to be a model of human perfection. You don’t want to be a fallen character either, let’s be clear, but it’s certainly more than okay to be a fully rounded human being with lots of ordinary human failings that you are working on.

As in executive life, so in MBA admissions. You should not present yourself to MBA Adcom as a bust of marble perfection, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. That’s hard to believe, and it’s not even interesting. You can and you should share your doubts, fears, and miscalculations, along with your victories. That speaks confidence and maturity.