When I applied for MBA programs, almost three years ago, virtually every interview question, essay, and interest statement carried an overtone of leadership. Almost by definition, it’s an amorphous term, and I suppose that’s the point: for every person, for every situation, it takes on a new meaning. Gandhi and Ceasar were both leaders in their time, after all. To be sure, the brand of leadership required by business school students is somewhat distinctive. It’s a tight-knit, non-hierarchical community, and in such settings, nothing gets done unless everyone’s motivated to be part of the solution. But when I met with Fuqua’s Board of Visitors last November, one member suggested that leadership in business school, in a relatively controlled setting, wasn’t necessarily a strong proxy for leadership in the real world.
It’s curious that leadership should be such a focal point of the MBA experience; after all, many graduates, myself included, go on to take jobs where they’re relatively low on the corporate totem pole. Day-to-day, I may have a few lower level colleagues aiding me, but, for the most part, I’m a foot soldier; the opinions I form have to be consistent, and have my company’s emblem tattooed on them, but they’re mine.
It doesn’t sound like a role where leadership would necessarily be a valued trait, but here again, when I interviewed for the job, it was embedded in everything. I wondered from day one why, when there were so many other skills that constitute a competent analyst, they chose to focus on this apparent red herring.
I guess the lesson I learned was that leadership becomes a lot more subtle as you become a professional, especially in a large organization – and there are different forms of leadership.
I’ve found that I’ve become less of a functional leader, and more of a diplomat. We have clients with pressing needs; if I’m the main point of contact and I’m unable to fulfill them, it reflects poorly not just on me, but on my organization. Even early on, I’ve come to stand for something much bigger than myself, and I’m starting to realize that I may have inadvertently honed this while in business school.
‘Branding,’ as a term, became something of a punch-line among students, but it’s more clear to me now than ever that it was more than just making sure you didn’t say anything inappropriate in front of recruiters. I got so tied up in finding a job and putting together a decent GPA that it became hard to see the bigger picture, that the whole experience, in a way, was grooming us to become stewards of Fuqua’s reputation. Fuqua, just like my company, doesn’t sell widgets, it sells people. From day one, we all, whether willingly or not, became representatives of the brand, and perhaps unconsciously, began crafting our pitches to fit that. For me, this was an enduring lesson, because once again, I have to do the same, even if the pitch is different; fortunately, I feel prepared to do so.