One of the biggest news stories in higher education in 2006 – and one that is still extremely relevant two presidential administrations later – was the ongoing student demonstrations that almost closed down Gallaudet University, the Washington, DC-based liberal arts college devoted to education for the deaf community. The school even came close to losing its status as an accredited university for the deaf!

Student protesters had been demanding that a university official who was named president of the University be removed from that post. They complained that her leadership style and interpersonal skills make her unfit to lead the college.

There was considerable disagreement over the merits of the demonstrators’ complaints. The president-designate and her supporters said the dispute had more to do with how she was educated and how her training relates to contemporary ideas about deaf identity. Nonetheless, some of the protesters’ stories gave a good example of why ‘soft skills’ are vital to leaders and managers, and why business schools look for evidence of communication and interpersonal skills in MBA candidates’ applications.

The president-delegate was a long-time Gallaudet staff member, having served as provost since 2000. During that time she had had many interactions with faculty and students. Some students and professors say that she came across as unfriendly and aloof. They argued that she lacked the warmth and engaging personality needed to serve as Gallaudet’s public face and chief fund-raiser. A more serious allegation is that she had repeatedly failed to consult with faculty on personnel and administrative issues, contributing to a perceived gap between faculty and students on one hand and University administrators on the other.

As an outsider, it’s easy to dismiss the protests as ‘a tempest in a teacup.’ Perhaps the demonstrations truly were overblown and unfair to the president-designate. But for anyone aspiring to lead an organization, the protests offered a cautionary lesson about how something as small and simple as whether or not you look people in the eye when you speak to them can spark resentments that lead to an organizational melt-down.

Leadership is not only about being the sharpest analyst or the shrewdest strategist in the room. It’s about motivating people to work together toward a shared goal. Unfair as it may be, it’s often little, hard-to-describe things that can make or break a leader. That’s why the b-school admissions committees will be looking for evidence of interpersonal awareness, maturity, teamwork, and effective communication in your essays and recommendation letters. You can increase your chances of admissions success by first cultivating these qualities and then making sure that you highlight them in your applications.

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