M.B.A.s and Leadership

Use your time in business school to sharpen your leadership skills and to understand how to implement them.


If you were to ask a roomful of b-school students why they decided to pursue an M.B.A., the majority would mention leadership in their answer. Whether their goal is becoming the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or inspiring talented people to join their startup, they know that strong leadership skills will be essential to fulfilling their dream.

Yet many wonder what a b-school classroom can teach students about leadership that they wouldn't learn on the job by observing their bosses and, eventually, leading others. A recent interview in the winter issue of the Yale School of Management's magazine, Qn, shed some light on this subject.

In the article "Who Needs Leaders?" Yale SOM dean Sharon M. Oster, dean-designate Edward A. Snyder, and Yale University president Richard C. Levin discuss, among other leadership-related topics, how business school molds better leaders.

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According to Snyder, students benefit from being in an environment that allows them to apply "academic values" to their leadership skills. He says, "If you're around a great university and people who think critically, you can start to ask questions in much better ways: Why do you think your idea is right? What will prove you wrong? What data are necessary?"

Along with improving their critical thinking skills, b-school students also learn how to better understand big-picture considerations during the course of their studies. According to Oster, key leadership attributes include "understanding the importance of thinking about the long term, not the immediate term; of thinking about others, not only yourself; of thinking about values, not only brains."

Finally, students gain a sense of their potential impact as a leader on an organization. Snyder explains, "What is unique about the M.B.A. is that it really focuses on developing people who understand organizations and how an individual leverages an organization, how she or he works in a team setting, while acting with integrity."

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When choosing who will be admitted from the large pool of promising applicants each year, admissions officers at the Yale SOM and other top M.B.A. programs do not expect to see evidence of a highly evolved leadership style. However, most programs do look for applicants who possess demonstrated leadership potential. If you're applying to b-school, you should ask yourself, "When have I demonstrated leadership?" and find ways to highlight this on your application.

Perhaps you identified processes at work that could be streamlined and convinced your bosses to implement your improvements, or you've organized community service projects, or even led your college basketball team to a conference title. Examples like these should be included on your résumé and perhaps highlighted in your application essays. Note that all of these examples have one thing in common: They include other people. A leader must have followers, and a common mistake applicants make when trying to convey leadership is to merely demonstrate initiative. While starting a successful one-man business selling t-shirts out of your apartment shows resourcefulness, it doesn't speak to your ability to lead.

Most students who are admitted to top b-schools have already shown their passion for leadership. One of the most important skills they will learn as an M.B.A. student is how to refine that passion. As Oster says, "When we teach the M.B.A.s, we are getting them at a formative moment for leadership skills. It's a moment when things can come together for them, when some of their inchoate ideas about how the world works and what they want to be and who they are actually gel and connect with concrete aspirations, not just vague thoughts and vague dreams."