It’s interview season for international scholarships and many students hoping for a Rhodes, Truman, Marshall or Fulbright are gearing up. Sharing information on blogs,  memorizing their applications (a good thing to do) and tweeting nervously. Many will be especially concerned with the important but elusive category of ‘leadership’.

Although all successful leaders possess drive, the perception of what constitutes a leader is influenced by cultural norms and also prejudices. Many years ago in France I witnessed an appalling example of this as the lead panel member in a top scholarship discriminated against a Jewish (male) candidate and a female candidate. He could not accept that France should put them forward as future leaders. In an effort to remove them from competition he tried to “flunk” them by asking difficult and irrelevant questions, his manner becoming increasingly unpleasant as they correctly answered each question.  When a young man more to his cultural liking appeared, the panel member conducted a pleasant conversation without asking a single question. Fortunately, his prejudices were ignored when it came to the cut.  Top international scholarships no longer tolerate this kind of discriminatory behaviour in France or anywhere else. They have reputations to maintain and these are firmly based on selection by merit.  Although race, religion and gender discrimination are no long practised it does not follow that interviewers don’t have other kinds of cultural preferences in the leadership category.  Today these preferences are more likely to involve personality type.

It should be obvious what constitutes a leader but it isn’t always so simple. You only have to look at political leaders the world over to see that while there are consistencies there are also sharp differences.  How much more so when leadership definition is extended to other walks of life.  Many cultures assume that leaders publicly exude confidence and the extrovert personality through their voices, body language and style of speech.   The United States is such a culture.  Other cultures such as Britain find this combination aggressive and unattractive. They believe people may be cowed by an aggressive personality but they will not follow one.  And leadership is about being followed.  This does not mean that all Americans are aggressive or that everyone in Britain is reserved. However,  in scholarships where “leadership” is one of the criteria, people with a personality type running against their society’s cultural norm may have a problem.  It also means that people applying across cultures  have an advantage.

“Well they’ll hear him!” was the first comment made by a British interviewer of a British scholarship applicant with a clear and very impressive presentation voice.  The first reaction of the Americans however was “people will WANT to hear him.” The loud voice only made us want to listen to his content which was superb.  (Note that these were initial reactions only. Scholarship panel discussions are long affairs. They need to discuss individual content at length, then stack up candidates against each other.)  On the other hand it was more difficult for some of the Americans to give proper attention to equally impressive candidates who did not speak with a booming voice.  They seemed too ‘scholarly.’  ‘Yes’, was my reply ‘and this is a scholarship.’

Students cannot and should not change their personality at interview. Scholarship interviewers are good at detecting fakes.  Besides you cannot count on presenting to people from one culture. International scholarships sometimes have mixed nationality panels. Or if they are all Americans or all British for example they may be “reacting”  to their own cultural norm because their experience of living or working abroad has made them admire a different model. Some panel members favourable to British candidates with obvious confidence were British. They argued that the  traditional model of quiet, modest British leadership was “not competitive!”  Similarly, some of the Americans were weary of the “typical” American model and wanted to promote less flashy US candidates.

For this reason rather than changing yourself, the most important preparation for interview is to be certain that your answers shed light on the whole range of your leadership skills.  If you have a confident personality and have regularly held officer positions the panel will assume that your powerful personality made you a natural leader. What they will be interested to hear is whether you have used your  leadership to provide and enhance opportunities for others to lead.  This is the issue behind the British prejudice against “ambitious” people. The assumption is that the person who puts himself forward is stepping on others to get ahead.  Demonstrating a generous leadership style will win points.

Quieter people and particularly those with an interest in the non profit world have other challenges. The most important is that many of them dislike the leadership question and therefore fail to convince that they are worthy of the scholarship.  They feel uncomfortable talking about “I” not because they are not initiators and doers (leaders) but because to speak in those terms appears to be the antithesis of their life goals. Their goal is to use their leadership skills to promote teamwork.   Understanding this I reminded such candidates that the panel needed to identify individual effort.  Otherwise when they said “we” the panel might conclude they were hiding behind the achievements of others.  I chose to explain that. Many interviewers will not.

Why do scholarships ask the leadership question in the first place? That is worthy of another blog but the short answer is impact. Investing in a scholar means investing in someone’s ability to have an identifiable impact on fellow students, their foreign institution and eventually on their field of study or society as well. People on international scholarship panels are accomplished people with diverse professional backgrounds and they know that success takes more than an outstanding academic record.  So they are looking for articulate people who can make things happen. The leadership question is their way of assessing whether candidates fit the criteria.

Mixed panels with different views on leadership personalities and possessing different backgrounds and life experience are good news for students and they are the norm in many high end scholarships.  Students invited to interview have already demonstrated leadership in a written application.  All they need at interview is to cite examples that ensure their leadership abilities do not become lost in translation.



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