Harvard Business School Essay on Leadership
Prompt: Describe a situation that tested your leadership skills. How did you manage the situation?
Championship Game, Great Lakes Invitational Tournament Sellout crowd of 19,000, National T.V. audience Harvard 1 Michigan 1, late in the final period. I carried the puck up the left wing and couldn’t find a teammate as I reached the offensive zone. It was late in the shift, so I dumped the puck into the far corner, retreated to the bench, and was replaced by the freshman left wing on the second line. Moments later, Michigan transitioned nicely, leaving our three forwards caught in the offensive zone. Their initial rush was stopped, but the rebound spun out to their trailing wing, the freshman’s responsibility. The Michigan player scored, and the goal gave them the championship, a devastating blow as we all felt we had outplayed them and should be bringing the trophy back to Cambridge.
We undressed slowly in the locker room until the coach entered and all activity stopped. He was understandably upset at the loss and the defensive breakdown that had cost us the title. He berated us for our lack of effort and discipline. He then moved to a theme that I hadn’t heard before, challenging the senior class for their lack of leadership. Already upset, I was thoroughly unprepared for what was next. Wheeling around quickly, he faced me and said, “I can’t believe that we have a senior, a guy who’s supposed to be a leader, who’s so selfish that rather than dumping the puck in the zone late in the game when he’s tired, decides to be the hero. He wants to score the big goal and get the glory, but instead he gets caught and his man beats him back up the ice to score the winner. That play cost us the game, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. One guy’s selfishness can cost us a game.”
I was stunned and demoralized. In the heat of the moment, he hadn’t noticed that I had done the unselfish thing, and was actually sitting on the bench right in front of him when the winning goal was scored. Unfortunately, there were only two people in the room that knew I was not at fault, so after his tirade the other 22 players now believed that I had let the team down. With a team that was as close as we were, and one in which I was supposed to be a leader, there was no greater sin. In the moments after his accusation, I wrestled with feelings of anger, sadness, and confusion. My immediate reaction was to respond, I thought I would explode if I didn’t defend myself. As I looked across at the freshman, he stared blankly at me with tears in his eyes. I stared directly at the coach, a full 5 seconds passed, and he walked away, over to console our goalie. The opportunity for redemption in the eyes of my teammates had passed. However, the situation was not over, and neither was the opportunity to absolve myself. We returned to Cambridge, and had two days off before resuming practice. I was informed shortly before taking the ice that I had been moved from the first line to the fourth line, effective immediately. The practice was a blur, as I watched the progress I had made from J.V. player to major contributor evaporate in a case of mistaken identity.
Playing hockey at Harvard had been a lifelong dream, born on freezing nights in Watson Rink 15 years earlier watching my two oldest brothers play for the Crimson. The dream was quickly turning into a nightmare, as I knew the coach’s opinion of me had been altered. I spent the next two days considering the proper course I should take to correct the mistake. We had a game tape right in the locker room. I could tell the Captain, who was one of my best friends. I could tell the assistant coach. Or I could confront the coach myself. I had a hundred opportunities over the next few days to clear my name. With each passing day, it was apparent that I wouldn’t do it. It’s been three years, and I still haven’t. Why?
It would not have been difficult, in a practical sense, to let the coach know that I had not been at fault, that the freshman was the one caught up ice, but it was simply a physical mistake, and not an act of selfishness on his part. It was possible that no one would really be hurt by my disclosure. I had several days to think about the situation and decided against speaking up for a multitude of reasons, some of which aren’t easily explainable. For me to absolve myself, I would have had to compromise a teammates’ standing. With any teammate, I would have had a tough time doing it. There are several ideals in a group setting more important than personal satisfaction. Loyalty, Teamwork, Character. Most importantly, how could I have called myself a leader if I had acted any other way? Moreover, the fact that the other player was this particular freshman precluded me from even considering clearing my name. He was me, 3 years earlier. Young for his class, somewhat in awe of his surroundings, and clinging to a spot on the varsity. I was at the end of my career and fully deserved playing time. I had earned it, improving with each season. If I was to clear my name and compromise his, likely robbing him of the opportunity that I had capitalized on three years earlier, what would I have gained? The only thing I had to gain from reversing the situation was personal redemption. I decided there were other ways to achieve that. I worked diligently in practice and slowly moved back up the ladder to my original slot. The freshman also improved consistently, and was one of our steadier players by season’s end.
Leadership is not appointed, it is earned. It does not have to be vocal, but must be constant. It is most certainly not convenient, but it is most definitely necessary. Leadership is often not clear in times of success, but is magnified in times of challenge. Leaders must often choose a course of action that is most beneficial to the group that he or she represents, regardless of the personal impact. Our team went on to capture the ECAC championship, a feat that we had not accomplished the previous two years with far more talented teams. There were several situations over the 30 game season where I thought our young team might falter, but the six seniors would not allow this to happen. I don’t know how many times each one of them chose to sacrifice for the good of the team, and I’m positive that none of them had any idea about the incident in Michigan or the decision I made. Leadership does not need to be obvious or heroic or monumental. It only needs to be consistent and uncompromising.