Career Resources

How to Describe Your Leadership Skills in a Cover Letter

How to Describe Your Leadership Skills in a Cover Letter
Cover letters need to be short, which can be hard for anyone trying to summarize even as little as a year of work experience, let alone ten or 20 years in a few cogent sentences. Image from Death to the Stock Photo
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly February 28, 2020

Because no hiring manager wants to read “I’m a natural leader” for the dozenth, if not hundredth, time today.

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Does the perfect resume exist? As if nailing down the right format isn’t hard enough, you’ll need to spell- and grammar-check to boot, and drop a whole bunch of buzzwords while incorporating an accurate snapshot of your work experience, achievements, and skills.

That resumes are essential to landing a new job is basically a universal truth. And while forming your own isn’t exactly synonymous with a good time, for many job-seekers, it’s the cover letter that represents the most dreaded part of the job search.

For one, cover letters need to be short, which can be hard for anyone trying to summarize even as little as a year of work experience, let alone ten or 20 years in a few cogent sentences.

What’s more, whether you’re a recent college graduate, switching careers, applying with years of hands-on experience in your field, or someone whose leadership skills are certified by the Harvard Kennedy School, you’ve likely grappled with the challenge of incorporating the skills that you know can help you move to the top of nearly any application pile, in any industry. Namely, communication, critical thinking, collaboration—and you guessed it, leadership.

One of the many soft skills that employers value, a cover letter that clearly demonstrates your leadership skills is essential to securing any job that requires you to take initiative and be a leader—whether as a manager or among your peers.

When hiring for leadership skills, employers look for candidates with qualities that will allow them to successfully interact with colleagues and clients while increasing employee engagement, supporting a positive work environment, and helping remove obstacles for their team’s workflow. Some may even inspire colleagues to apply leadership traits in their own work.

So, how can you demonstrate your abilities as a leader in a genuine, captivating, and concrete way without walking through your entire career path? It’s all about letting your leadership skills speak for themselves. More specifically, it’s about optimizing your cover letter by incorporating actionable and relevant stories and experiences—and completing a few more steps that we’ll get to here.

Provide examples of your leadership skills

Resume building site Zety’s 2020 HR report indicates that each corporate job offer attracts an average of 250 resumes. Given those numbers, a cover letter that provides specific examples of your leadership ability can make the difference between landing an interview and the growing sensation that your application disappeared into the HR black hole.

To stand out, you’ll need to drum up some leadership-based anecdotes from previous jobs. You can do this by brainstorming projects, assignments, or responsibilities that best illustrate your leadership expertise. From here, you may select one to describe in-depth or a handful of shorter experiences to talk about.

For example, imagine you’re a Master of Business Administration (MBA) graduate applying for an associate role at a consulting firm. You might highlight the following in your cover letter:

While completing an MBA, I acted as a [role] of [club name], an organization that promotes career and professional advancement and socially minded students cultivate relationships with non- and for-profit social enterprises and organizations. Through panels, networking events, workshops, and other activities, [club name] seeks to prepare students to join an international network of leaders committed to using the power of business to create a better world.

Or maybe, you’re a teacher seeking a position with greater responsibility. Your cover letter might include:

As a teacher at [school name], I worked as a resource provider by helping new staff members set up their classrooms. This included brainstorming ideas for differentiating instruction and planning lessons, creating classroom guides that explain to students how to get help when their teacher is busy, and offering recommendations on how to use grade-level curriculum pacing guides.

If you don’t have leadership experience from a job

Remember, leadership is not just about job titles. You may find that your ability to inspire people to work toward a common goal, gauge priorities, and manage resources stems from non-work-related activities focused on teaching, motivating, coaching, and supervising others.

No matter what positions or experience you have under your belt, leadership skills are valuable, whether you were the editor-in-chief of your college paper, captain of your swim team, or acted as a community ambassador while volunteering at a nonprofit organization.

Quantify your impact

While past job titles and achievements may do some work to capture the attention of recruiters and hiring managers, convincing them of your leadership skills doesn’t stop there. In this case, you’ll need to back up real-life examples of your skills with specific, measurable results that are unique to your experience.

When writing about the leadership skills you applied to previous jobs and activities, think about quantifying their impact by using hard information, whether time, money, volume, process-improvement percentages, your rank in performance, or even the size of your team.

Let’s apply that to the first example we used above:

While completing an MBA, I acted as a [role] of [club name], an organization that promotes career and professional advancement and socially minded students cultivate relationships with non- and for-profit social enterprises and organizations… In [club name], I led student recruitment efforts across [school name]’s MBA and MAM programs. In two years, [club name]’s student members grew from 70 to just over 250, including two additional student chapters at prominent U.S. business schools.

Incorporate action from the job description

If you’ve written a quality cover letter, it’s natural to want to use the bulk of it for each job you’re applying for, save a few tweaks here and there. However, it’s likely that this approach won’t highlight your skills as successfully as you’d like and worse, fail to portray what makes you the ideal candidate for a specific job. This is where optimization comes into play.

So, if you take the time to write a cover letter, take the time to make it a worthwhile read by referencing specific action phrases—like “oversee,” “communicate,” and “inform,” for example—from the job description, whether by inserting them into anecdotes of your leadership skills them or using them to describe what interests you about the prospective position.

Highlight skills associated with leadership

Irrespective of how you define them, all good leaders regardless of role, industry, or location have a number of soft skills that help motivate their employees, team members, and clients. While it’s a no-brainer that employers seek these skills in the candidates applying for leadership roles, these skills are also immensely valuable for all job applicants and employees.

So, what are they? To answer that, think of an effective leader you’ve interacted with. They have the ability to communicate well, motivate their team, handle and delegate responsibilities, listen to feedback, and have the flexibility to solve problems in an ever-changing workplace.

Turns out, leadership is about much more than an ability to rally a team or spearhead a project. What employers are really looking for are candidates who can help them achieve their biggest priorities. And remember, this is true whether you’re applying for a seat in the C-suite or an entry-level position.

When applying to a job, consider which key personality traits will further strengthen your description of your leadership skills. Not sure where to start? The global recruiting site Hays names these eight characteristics as attributes all strong leaders should have:

  • Professional
  • Results-oriented
  • Inspirational
  • Accountable
  • Influential
  • Intuitive
  • Emotionally intelligent
  • Big-picture thinking

Now, it’s all well and good to say you think big or possess intuition that helps you make difficult decisions wisely, but you need to convince employers of this claim. How? By quantifying these associated skills and illustrating how you’ve applied them previously.

Like you did with examples of leadership, think about past accomplishments and objectives you met in former roles, and give quantifiable anecdotes that prove you can do what you say you can. If you find that these soft skills are present in the leadership-based examples you’ve already provided, you’re already one step ahead of the cover letter game.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com


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