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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 most extensive prompt comes from the Schwarzman Scholars Program and could be used as a guide to reflection for leadership essays for many other scholarships:

  • Describe at least one distinct example that best illustrates your leadership. This may draw from your professional, academic, or personal life when you demonstrated leadership qualities which highlight: 
    • The intellectual/analytical abilities to identify and understand challenges and opportunities, and envision solutions
    • The initiative to act and communicate why 
    • Interpersonal skills to inspire a team effort 
    • An ability to push through resistance and/or challenges to reach positive results/change for the better. 
  • Outline the situation in detail, along with your learning and growth, and how you envision this will impact your aspirations to be a future leader. Consider the following: 
    • What was the problem or issue you identified, and why did you choose to act? 
    • What was your plan of action? 
    • What obstacles or challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
    • What were the outcomes and impact on the community or purpose? 
    • What did you learn and/or what lessons would you pass on to others? 
    • How has this experience shaped you as a leader and how does it connect with your vision for future leadership aspirations?

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)

The common thread here is that leadership is about accomplishing through a group what we could not have accomplished as individiduals.  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.  It might be helpful to organize your notes for the essay under three headings:

  • Problem (or Opportunity) - What is the essential problem or opportunity that your group's action sought to address?
  • Action - What did you (as an individual and as a group) do to address this problem or capitalize on this opportunity?
  • Results - What were the tangible results of your action? How did it solve the problem or benefit others?  Can you provide numbers to demonstrate the impact of the action?  Is the solution ongoing and sustainable?

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.  Suggested Reading

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