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Lesson Four: Leadership

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Describe a situation that tested your leadership skills. How did you manage the situation? (Harvard)

Discuss two situations in the past four years where you have taken an active leadership role. How do these events demonstrate your managerial potential? (Anderson)

This question is similar to the accomplishment question. You can employ similar tactics to answer it. Choose situations that are real and meaningful to you, not what you think will impress the committee the most. Do not limit yourself to using situations from only your career, especially if the question asks you to give more than one example.

This question shares common ground, surprisingly, with the ethical dilemma question because ethical dilemmas often call on leadership abilities for resolution. Keep this in the back of your mind so you can strategize if one of your applications asks both questions. On the other hand, be careful not to bring unnecessary attention to questionable situations when not absolutely necessary. Ethical dilemma questions are notoriously difficult, this question does not have to be.


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Discuss two situations in the past four years where you have taken an active leadership role. How do these events demonstrate your managerial potential? (Anderson)

Wellwork Action Team

After working nearly a year as a production engineer, one morning I experienced a kind of epiphany. I realized that our profit center had effectively gained manpower and resources in the form of increased attention from vendors with whom we had recently formed strategic alliances. By improving communication between these vendors as well as between our profit center and these companies, I envisioned a unified approach that could improve and expedite our production operations. With the encouragement of the operations superintendent, I arranged a brainstorming session for supervisory level personnel from our operations staff and our new alliance partner’s companies. From that session, a “Wellwork Action Team” was created with the specific purpose of improving and streamlining our operations procedures in order to reduce the cost of increase the quality of our projects in the field.

After being chosen facilitator for our Wellwork Action Team, I set for myself two personal goals: first, to maintain enthusiasm among team members and second, to implement the ideas and concepts brought forth by our team into our everyday procedures. To ensure continued involvement, I first convinced myself that the potential benefits that might be gained from having this team merited the time and energy of its participants. Next, I personally committed myself to the project and firmly discussed my commitment with each of team members. Third, I led the team in drafting a mission statement and clearly defining our goals. We identified measurements by which we could evaluate our progress. Finally, I promised the team members that we would keep meetings to a minimum and re-evaluate the usefulness of our team in eight weeks.

From June 1995 to the present, our Wellwork Action Team has successfully increased efficiency in our oil pumps, reduced electrical costs by 6 percent, and nearly doubled the production of three oil wells. As our team continues to evolve, we envision reducing our wellwork budget from $5.0 million/year in 1995 to $4.6 million/year in 1996 while maintaining oil production and reducing operating expenses. Our current challenges include overcoming conflicts in the schedules of our team members and providing for long-term oil recovery as well as short-term cost reduction.

Applying New Technologies

When most people envision an oil well, they picture ten-foot-high rod pumping units, the kind common to Los Angeles and West Texas because of their durability, availability, and efficiency. With 300 wells on a mere 10 acre island, however, these units are impractical for our use; a less efficient, higher cost and lower-profile type of centrifugal pump is employed by our company. Recently, a small L.A. firm invented a new method of using common rod-type pumps without the bulky surface equipment. This marriage of new technology with old rod-style pumping appeared to have significant potential for reducing costs on our island. Although I do not normally design our pumping equipment, I assumed active project leadership when deciding to install the first unit and apply the new technology.

Because our operations personnel and vendor partners were unaccustomed to handling hundreds of 30-foot long rods and putting them into use, I met with the inventor of the new subsurface equipment and two related vendors who would supply the rods. Rather than provide specifications to each vendor for a bid as is customary, I chose one vendor from the onset and entrusted him with the project. I assigned him to work with the inventor of the new equipment and asked them to together devise a low cost, high quality engineering design for us. In doing so, the possibility existed for them to overdesign and overprice the equipment, reducing efficiency and thus defeating our purpose. Nevertheless, a tremendous upside potential existed in allowing the vendors to harmonize their efforts and experience. I hoped to receive a superior product born from the sweat equity of their two companies.

My strategy was tested in November 1994 when two units were installed. They have operated without failure since installation and have reduced operating costs by 38 percent on those wells. In this instance, my management challenge was to delegate non-traditional responsibilities to our vendors. I feel that this experience has improved our business process and taken us further down the path towards mutually beneficial business relationships with our vendors. I will continue to work in this manner, keeping a careful eye out for the abuse potential created when allowing a vendor to design and price their own equipment for our applications.


These two examples have several positive qualities. First, they are concise and well structured. Second, although both situations come from the professional sphere, they balance well with each other. One focuses more on office policy and stresses the applicant’s ability to see the big picture in management. The other deals with an in-the-field hands-on engineering solution and stresses his inventiveness, attention to detail, and technological skills. Third, these examples stress unique background-not many business school applicants would understand how to design oil-pumping equipment. They show that he is not afraid to get his hands dirty. Finally, the essayist gives very detailed proof of tangible results.


From ESSAYS THAT WILL GET YOU INTO BUSINESS SCHOOL, by Amy Burnham, Daniel Kaufman, and Chris Dowhan.  Copyright 1998 by Dan Kaufman.  Reprinted by arrangement with Barron's Educational Series, Inc.


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