YES OR NO? MAKE OR BUY? YOU DECIDE
Another valuable leadership quality is decisiveness. Given the speed at which business and life are moving these days, leaders can’t afford to sit on decisions for long periods of time; you don’t want to get stuck in analysis paralysis or let not having 100% certainty stop you from moving ahead. At the same time, you do want to make informed, thoughtful decisions, assessing and addressing risks, even if you cannot be certain about them. These decisions can sometimes be quite painful. For example, Victor realized he had to fire a friend and co-founder whose involvement in their startup had become very problematic to the rest of the team and the investors. In his case, he realized that he should have established clear guidelines up front as to what might signal either of their departures, and that he should have expressed his concerns earlier. Waiting as long as he did, hoping it would work itself out, hurt the organization and cost him the friendship.
As a leader and decision-maker like Victor, you’ll undoubtedly make some mistakes. This is called being alive and being human! What’s critical in these situations is being accountable, open to learning, and flexible enough to change gears as needed. Over the years, schools have asked questions about making decisions under uncertain conditions and making mistakes; you’ll want to be prepared to answer such queries.
This ties in to a broader leadership consideration, which is being self-aware and growth-oriented. From my perspective, these have always been essential qualities, and schools are becoming increasingly interested in seeing how you demonstrate them. For instance, this year Kellogg asks outright, “Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg?” As implied in this question, ideally you are evolving how you lead over the course of your lifetime.
You can demonstrate self-awareness and a growth orientation by spending time being reflective (e.g., journaling, meditating, or taking time alone in the wilderness); actively soliciting feedback from managers, peers, and those you might manage; working with a coach; learning more about yourself and others via systems like Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, and StrengthsFinder; and taking classes or participating in activities to improve yourself (e.g., Toastmasters or improv classes to enhance your speaking abilities, spontaneity, and leadership presence).
KNOW AND CARE ABOUT OTHERS
While I’ve already touched on this a bit, to be a great leader, you want to develop and demonstrate EQ, or emotional intelligence. The late Warren Bennis, a leadership expert at USC, noted, “In the fields I have studied, emotional intelligence is much more powerful than IQ in determining who emerges as a leader. IQ is a threshold competence. You need it, but it doesn’t make you a star. Emotional intelligence can.” One of the central components of EQ is being able to empathize with others.**
As I reflect on the many essays my clients have written about challenges at work over the years, most of them have been interpersonal, and these have largely been resolved when the client has taken the time to really listen to and understand the other person’s situation from that person’s perspective. We’re seeing the importance of empathy increasingly in the business press. A quick Google search turned up articles such as these: “Why Empathy Is the Force That Moves Business Forward” (Forbes); “Why Genuine Empathy Is Good for Business” (Fast Company); “Empathy: The Basic Quality Many Leaders Keep Getting Wrong” (Inc.); and “Empathy Is Still Lacking in Leaders Who Need It Most” (Harvard Business Review). So when you are drawing up your leadership examples, do consider including at least one in which you’ve demonstrated empathy.
Finally, having an eye to nurturing your people and caring for the health of your organization is also important. In the past, the task of leadership was often considered more outward looking, but it’s been evolving to include an internal glance as well. In fact, the leader isn’t only busy steering the ship, but he or she is also a gardener of sorts. You’re being asked to take charge and take care. How have you attempted to develop and empower those in your organization? Have you proposed anything that has helped people collaborate more, made the workplace more enjoyable, or given people opportunities to grow? I’m remembering one of my earliest clients, Marlene. She was a relatively new analyst at a fast-paced New York investment bank, and she had friends who were employed at other banks. Marlene discovered fairly quickly that she and the fellow analysts at her bank didn’t have the resources, training, and mentorship her friends had at other banks. Wanting to improve the experience for her co-workers and up-level how they might contribute to their company, she decided to conduct a more formal survey regarding how analysts were being onboarded and developed at other banks, which she then presented to the head of investment banking at her company. This took a healthy dose of chutzpah. Fortunately for everyone involved, her research and suggestions were well received, and many of her recommendations were put into place, including establishing a formal mentorship program.
As you can see from this article, there are multiple ways to exercise leadership, even if you aren’t “in charge,” and my research and intuition suggest that power and leadership are moving “down into” and “throughout” organizations rather than being so concentrated at the top and center. In a way, organizations are evolving, becoming more intelligent, effective, and healthy as a result. If you’d like some assistance in identifying and sharing your leadership contributions, please feel free to contact me and I’d be happy to help you.
* I’ve changed the names of my clients and some of the details of their stories to maintain confidentiality.
** According to psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, EQ hinges upon self-awareness, self-regulation (being able to manage your emotional states in a healthy way), motivation, empathy, and social skills.
A Stanford MBA, Deborah Knox is founder and CEO of Insight Admissions. While she works extensively with traditional MBA applicants, she loves the challenge of assisting qualified nontraditional candidates. Devoted to the study of leadership excellence, Deborah has also served as a researcher and editor on numerous book projects for best-selling management author Jim Collins.