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Careers Question: Should I Put The Word “Leadership” On My Resume?

Have you ever had the task of hiring someone? Sometimes it can feel impossible right? On your worst day, your dream hire can turn out to have just been a good marketer. Weak problem solving skills, no sense of urgency, and not the leader he or she touted being on their resume. On the other hand, sometimes you just hit the jackpot, and the person quickly engages in the role, quickly gets plugged into everything at the office, and is poised to be a good leader from day one. But the question is, how can you really know from a resume screen exactly which one you are choosing? And how can you tell if they are going to be a good leader?

The reality is that sometimes you can do everything perfectly, and things will still turn out for the worst. This happens all the time in  But assuming a little correlation between the resume and the hiring decision, there’s a typical process that recruiters tend to go through, which is usually pretty effective. And in a recent question I responded to a question on GottaMentor one of the members asked about putting the word leadership on your resume. They specifically wanted to know what the implication were of changing the bottom section of their resumes from “Extracurricular Activities” to “Leadership And Extracurricular.”

I thought it was a good question, not only because it involves putting resumes in the context of pre-MBA or post-MBA jobs but also because it involves a little bit of philosophy on leadership. In any event, I’ve provided my response below. I’ll also note that  lots of interesting questions, just like this one, are asked and responded to every single day. So as I mentioned in a recent post, you might considering taking a look at GottaMentor when you get the chance. For now, though, here’s a sneak peak at one of my responses from the site.

MY RESPONSE

Dear Anonymous,

First off, you hit the nail on the head that leadership is an important consideration in any career you pursue, and as a result any application you submit. As such, you’re right to think that a good company or firm will want to hear more about your past leadership experiences. After all, conventional wisdom suggests that past performance is indicative of future performance.

On one hand, this means that during the recruiting process, companies will want to know as much about your past leadership experiences as possible. On the other hand, though, you may want to be careful about your strategy. While showing leadership on your resume is important, putting the word leadership on your resume – calling out that you have been a leader – may also come off as pretentious, as you suggested. Why? Perhaps here are a few reasons.

1. Because leadership is not a typical section that goes on a resume. If it were, then you would have seen it multiple times on the professional experience section.

2. Also because the word “leadership” is completely overused and misused by just about everyone today. It’s often confused with titles and not sufficiently correlated to influence and results.

3. Also because conventional wisdom suggests that leadership is not about taking credit for the work you’ve done. One of my favorite sayings in the world defines a leader as “One who can motivate his colleagues and get things done without making his teammates feel that it was the leader who had actually got the work done.”

So in my view, the best approach to your resume is not to tell but to demonstrate that you’ve led – that you’ve done some important things in the past, and you have important, specific plans for the future. If you can do that in a way that’s direct and avoids generalities, then during your interview they’ll probably ask you about it. That will give you the real chance to provide them with the real details of your experience, and as such prove that you had a leadership experience.

And so in the end, I would encourage you to shift your thinking from describing what your titles were and telling what you’ve done to describing who you are and what you bring to the table, as evidenced by what you’ve done. Does this distinction make sense?

Ultimately, it’s your decision if you want to make a new title for the section. It’s quite possible that an employer wouldn’t even notice the difference. And in some circumstances, an employer might be drawn in by the word and take a more close look at what you write. But, from my experience, I suspect that most of the top employers, wouldn’t be impressed by the wording change, not only because it’s easy for anyone to put “leadership” on a resume, but also because they probably interview a lot of people with leadership experiences.

I personally, live by Robin Sharma’s motto – you don’t need a title to be a leader. Because of that and because of traditional resume protocol, I don’t use the world leadership on my resume, but chances are that it will not make a difference no matter what you decide, so long as you have substance.

Good luck!

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Thursday, May 27th, 2010 Careers, Leadership 1 Comment

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Jeremy C Wilson is a JD-MBA alumni using his site to share information on education, the social enterprise revolution, entrepreneurship, and doing things differently. Feel free to send along questions or comments as you read.

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The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect the views or position of Kellogg, Northwestern Law, the JD-MBA program, or any firm that I work for. I only offer my own perspective on all issues.
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