Loudness Is Not Leadership: The Many Types of Successful MBAs

One question we’ve been hearing frequently is, “What type of person is an MBA?” Many MBA applicants want to know if one personality type is more successful than others when applying. Personally, I understand these concerns—I wondered the same thing when I applied and all I knew was that MBAs were expected to be leaders.

So let’s say this clearly and directly at the outset: there is no single MBA personality type. MBAs are expected to be leaders within organizations, but leaders and leadership styles come in many forms. As an MBA, you’ll need confidence, you’ll need intelligence, and you’ll need strategic vision, but you don’t necessarily have to be loudest voice in the room.

This is similar to the question of what personalities make the best entrepreneurs. An entire segment of budding entrepreneurs latched on to the image of Steve Jobs and determined that if they wanted a successful startup, they needed to act the part of the tortured genius—erratic, volatile, and demanding. Of course, it’s easy for this image to resonate with people since it plays so strongly on our passions and impulses. But this doesn’t make it the only—or the best—approach to entrepreneurship.

Similarly, during this U.S. Presidential cycle, we’ve witnessed one particular candidate (okay, it’s Donald Trump) who is very loud and very assertive, who touts his undergraduate business school credentials, and who has found a fair amount of success in the campaign from this. In a lot of ways, he effectively conjures up the 1980s image of Wall Street and all the conventional “business” types it implies. And although he isn’t an MBA, it still seems to be coloring some individuals’ perceptions—including those of prospective MBA applicants—of who and what an MBA is.

But MBA programs have evolved significantly in recent decades. MBA admissions committees today are genuinely interested in having all different types of voices from various backgrounds. Their approaches are almost scientific—they take different types of candidates in different proportions to come up with an optimal mixture. They want introverts and extroverts, those from STEM backgrounds as well as those from the liberal arts, those who can build and lead great teams as well as draw insights from them. In fact, one of the red flags you can raise for an admissions committee is if you have a “my way or the highway” approach to leadership.

The key is to be authentic in your MBA application. If you’re not naturally extroverted, that’s perfectly alright—some of the most successful MBAs are actually very introverted individuals (we recommend you read Susan Cain’s book QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking). Don’t be concerned if you don’t have an undergraduate degree in business—neither do the majority of admits at top MBA programs in recent years. Don’t get rattled by what you assume an MBA is supposed to be—be confident in your abilities, and be deliberate about how you tell your story in your application.

The irony in me saying all of this is that I’m considered by many as one of the “louder” individuals. It’s not necessarily bad to be loud and assertive as an MBA, but I’ll be the first to say that it isn’t the only way. As the saying goes, it takes all kinds to make a world. Well, it takes all kinds to make an MBA program too. If you’re thinking about applying, trust your education, trust your experience, and be yourself.

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