Leadership: the Key Ingredient to Success

Toward the end of my internship, I was asked by a senior executive what I was surprised most about my summer. I paused for a long time, and finally answered: "Leadership, and how it was so front and center to my experience".

Like many new MBAs on the job, I thought my goal was to perform functionally. My expectation going in was to learn a thing or two about health care and give a stellar performance on my project, or in other words, to get a "good grade". I wanted to hone and show off my marketing skills and industry knowledge. However, at the end of the internship, I realized that leadership was in fact what was most important. And that success in a corporate environment was enabled by placing leadership at the center.

Here's an analogy. Think of functional skills as the building blocks of food. There are carbs, proteins (or amino acids for you science folks), fats and so forth. In any food, you'll find a combination of them. Just like people, we all have our functional expertise, such as analytical, marketing, negotiation skills and so forth. But what makes food actually appealing? It's the flavor. Leadership is the flavor that makes food taste good.

What is leadership? It's the ability to make others around you perform even better. It's being accountable and taking ownership. It's about articulating the goal and enabling the team to stay focused and accomplish the mission. It's about being flexible and open to new ideas from others. In essence, it is when you are on a team, the team functions better with you in it. In other words it means when 1+1>2. 

Heck, even synthetic food startups have to make their product taste good. If you were in a restaurant and had a menu full of choices, would you pick something that looked bland? Would you fill yourself with the free bread? Probably not. You'd only do that if you were really, really hungry or actually just wanted carbs. 

Taking the analogy further, this is the same thing that helps drive career development. Companies, when hiring or promoting, have a menu full of exceptionally talented people to choose from. Sure, there are roles where only one skill set is needed (bread example), but in order to move up and gain more responsibilities you'll need to add in some more flavor (maybe some lettuce, tomatoes, and bacon). When the role that the company needs to fill is for example, a nice sandwich for lunch, then the BLT may then get chosen.

Many young professionals are very focused on developing their functional skills. I was one of them. When I was in science, I tried to read as much as I could on my research area. I wanted to be an expert. During the MBA, I focused on gaining skills in health care and business. I'm not saying these are not important, they are. These are the ingredients. However, just having these skills will not get me to where I want to be.

As interns, we have the freedom to observe. I met a lot of people, from C-level executives to entry-level managers. And I realized - the delta between them was their key ingredient, or their leadership skills. The need for entry-level hires was to fulfill a specific role (bread example, again). As people moved higher in the organization, the need for functional expertise slowly diminished, and at the very senior levels, it's all about being a leader.

My theory is that this is not a chicken-and-egg problem. It's chicken-chicken. Through my interactions, I strongly believe that those who become leaders strategically managed their personal development to focus on building leadership skills from the beginning. To put it another way, it's not because they are in a leadership role that they became leaders - it's because they were leaders to begin with.

This was also my experience as an intern. Completing my project wasn't the hardest part. In fact, I did most of my functional learning in my free time. However, in order to do an exceptional job, I had to engage people, ensure I communicated effectively, and actively manage team projects so that we were all aligned, focused, and energized. I realized that the majority of my work time was spent on managing my relationships with people in the organization. This was something I did not expect.

I urge young professionals and MBA students and graduates to focus on their leadership development. Focus on it even at the expense of your functional expertise if need be. Place it front and center to your education and career goals. Don't spend 10,000 hours to be the best programmer or bench scientist in the world. Instead, spend your energy on learning how to lead teams and manage people effectively.

To succeed in a business environment, the ability to lead is the key ingredient.

Read the other posts in my MBA Internship Leadership Series here:

What the MBA Doesn't Teach: How to Become a Leader
Gaining Exposure to Senior Leaders: Night Jobs
Get Promoted: First Build Trust With Your Boss
Leadership Development: Finding Time to Reflect
Leading Effective Meetings for MBAs
Non-Traditional MBA Skills, A Hidden Asset


  1. Well said. Nice blog by the way! I've subscribed and look forward to your future posts

  2. This is good advice. When I first joined my company I got feedback that I was too focused on my project and not my leadership development. Its great to have this insight early. Thanks for sharing

  3. I enjoyed your insight in the article. In my experience, I always seemed to float to the leadership role despite not being the strongest person technically. Upon receiving my MBA, I found several executives wanted me to focus on the technical skills and less on my leadership. I noticed those executives never seemed to promote from within and the people they hired tended to be 'yes' men.

    1. Thanks for sharing your comment. Finding the right people to work for is also an important part of career development. One thing I learned was that advocates were something that was critical.

  4. What to do when there are too many people trying to be leaders. Also, please comment on my definition of leader as one having followers and influence over stakeholders.

    1. I think it is good when everyone wants to be a leader, because in teams you want everyone to take ownership and accountability. In a team everyone has their own role and adds value in their own way, so you would want everyone to take a leadership role within their area of contribution.

      Rather, what you may be asking is what happens when everyone wants the title of a leader. This definitely happens in organizations, when one promotion is pursued by many people. It's really up to the organization to determine the outcome. I don't view titles as being particularly important to leadership, as I think titles are a means to an end, and not the end itself.

      Your definition of a leader is accurate. One needs the ability to influence and motivate people in the organization and attract followers to join your team.