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Writing Leadership Essays

by Henry Dyson

A number of national scholarships and fellowships ask applicants to write about their leadership experiences.  Here are a few prominent examples:

  • Truman Scholarship - “Describe a particular example of your leadership.”

  • Marshall Scholarship - “Describe a situation in which you recognized and responded to a need for leadership.”

  • Udall Scholarship - “Describe a leadership experience in which you made a difference on your campus or in your community.”

The following suggestions are intended to help you reflect upon and express your own leadership experiences.

Answering the Prompt

Pay careful attention to what the prompt asks you to describe.  A common pitfall to avoid is explaining your “theory” of leadership.  It may be very helpful to articulate this in your preparatory work, but the final essay should directly address the information requested in the prompt.  To get started, ask yourself: what are the subtle differences in the above prompts?

Definitions of Leadership

What is leadership?  While there are lots of definitions out there, they tend to emphasize two main aspects: (a) the creation of shared vision and (b) collective motivation toward the achievement of this vision.  Here are two illustrative examples:

  • The process of “influencing the activities of an organized group toward goal-setting and goal-achievement” (Stogdill, 1950)

  • “A process of social influence in which a person can enlist the the aid and support of others to achieve a common goal” (Chemers, 1997)

For each of the various examples that you might choose to write about, ask yourself: What was your vision? How did this vision come about? In what context (e.g. needs, opportunities)?  How did you communicate this vision to others?  How did you invite them to identify their own interests/values with this vision? How did you inspire them to action?  How did you marshall the common resources necessary to make this vision a reality? How did you enlist the support of others inside or outside your organization?

Leadership vs. Authority

One of the most common mistakes is to conflate “leadership experiences” with “leadership positions” - i.e. positions of authority within an organization.  Merton (1969) defines authority as “the legitimate rights of a position that require others to obey.” It is an attribute of a social position.  Leadership, on the other hand, “is an interpersonal relation in which others comply because they want to, not because they have to” (Merton, 1969).  Leadership, as defined above, can be found at every level of an organization.  So expand your list of possible experiences beyond the list of executive positions you’ve held in organizations.

Some Common Functions of Leadership

How have your leadership experiences demonstrated one or more of these common functions (selected from Merton, 1969)?

  • Leaders facilitate the adaptive capacity of social systems to internal and external pressures and opportunities.  

  • Leaders are future-oriented as well as present-oriented.  In the context of student leadership, it is particularly important to institutionalize processes in ways that will outlive a particular student generation.

  • Leaders enunciate the values and ideals of the group. Whether assigned the task or not, leaders represent the group to the larger community.

  • Leaders evaluate available resources and cope with the problem of their allocation.

  • Leaders express aspirations that evoke resonance among members of the group (i.e. shared vision).

  • Leaders mobilize, guide, coordinate, and control the efforts of group members. When effective, they deepen the motivation and enlarge the output of members beyond what would be achieved without them.

  • Leaders arbitrate and mediate the inevitable conflicts that emerge in social interaction in such a fashion that most group members most of the time feel that justice has been done.

Maintaining Focus

The word limit for these essays is typically very short.  As with any personal statement, the particular experience you discuss should be an illustration of your abiding character traits.  Provide the essential information about the context, but keep the focus on examples of how your traits interacted with the context to produce a leadership experience.  Remember you don’t have include every detail.  In many cases, the example that you discuss should be coordinated with the writer of your “leadership” letter of recommendation who can provide additional information.  In general, the essay should function like a movie trailer: it needs to provide enough information to catch the reader’s attention, but leaves her/him wanting to learn more in an interview.

Suggested Reading

Robert K. Merton, "The Social Nature of Leadership" (1969)