A common misconception made by job seekers is that leadership interview questions will only be asked for management positions.
This has been disproved time and time again.
No matter what level in the company you are interviewing for, you should prepare an example that demonstrates your leadership ability.
Best-case scenario: your preparation is paid off when you are put on the spot and asked to describe a time you demonstrated leadership.
Worst-case scenario: you are not asked this question, but you have an impressive example that demonstrates leadership for another interview question.
What is leadership?
The term "leadership" can mean different things to different people.
Merriam-Webster defines leadership as the power or ability to be in charge or in command of other people.
(FYI, your interviewer is going to expect you to demonstrate a higher level of leadership than Merriam-Webster’s definition.)
This higher level goes beyond the act of just managing individuals or projects.
Leaders possess skills at the root of who they are as a person.
They don’t just take the initiative, but they spread their ideas and passions like wildfires to everyone else.
- A leader is not the same as a dictator.
- A leader builds a network of followers, whatever the size.
- A leader will employ their skills to empower, uplift, and develop others.
When applying these ideas of leadership to the interview process, it becomes pretty clear what the hiring manager wants to hear.
- They don’t just want someone who can tell others what to do.
- They want someone who possesses the skills needed to run a team, department, or organization.
No matter what position you are applying for, you can guarantee leadership skills will be desired.
Whether you are applying for an entry position or one at the senior level, you can’t go wrong by showing the hiring manager that you have what it takes to move up the ranks into leadership.
Start by planning your answer
Okay, so now you know what the hiring manager wants to hear.
How do you figure out an answer to their question?
When being asked to describe a time you demonstrated leadership, you should focus on a somewhat recent example.
Mentioning something that happened ten years ago is not going to carry much weight in the present day.
This would raise the question, “Has he/she not demonstrated leadership in 10 years that they would have to give an example so far back?”
Use the S.T.A.R. approach.
This acronym works for any interview question in which you need to recap a past experience and provide an example.
(If you are unfamiliar with the STAR format, then take 60 seconds to look at #8 in the article How To Answer The 16 Most Common Interview Questions.)
Practically, how do you describe a time you demonstrated leadership?
Pamela Skillings provides a great example answer in her article Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Leadership.
Below is everything you need to know from this article.
We follow the S.T.A.R. format, so as long as you remember those twinkling pinpricks that shine in the night sky, you should remember these steps:
Describe the situation and then outline the job that you were tasked to fulfill.
When I was at ABC Company, we went through company-wide layoffs.
The team of five that remained in the department had to absorb the duties of the two who had left. As a result, people were overworked and morale suffered.
More mistakes were being made because attention was so scattered.
As the manager, it was my job to get performance back on track.
In this step, you describe your approach and/or the actions you took:
I scheduled a meeting with the full team to discuss strategies.
First, I communicated my appreciation for all of their hard work during a challenging time for the company.
Then I asked for their assistance in identifying ways for us all to be more efficient – including me!
I made it clear that this was a brainstorming meeting to come up with options – no idea was stupid and it was a safe environment for suggestions.
We spent an hour capturing ideas on a whiteboard, then voted on the five with the most potential. I then assigned each person to do more research on how we might implement one of the ideas.
This last stage of your response is very important.
Try to add quantifiable, specific details as to the positive results of your actions.
First of all, the team responded very positively to this approach. They loved the idea of being empowered to help find a solution.
They channeled their energy in a productive way once they knew they would be heard.
Right off the bat, we came up with two ideas that could be implemented quickly and save us a lot of time.
- One idea was to eliminate a weekly report. This freed up eight hours each week — including two hours of my time and three hours for my top account manager.
- Another was to train our administrative assistant to take on some of the tasks that were burdening our account managers.
We also decided to incorporate brainstorming and idea evaluation into our staff meetings each month.
This increased our efficiency overall and definitely boosted morale.
My boss even asked me to help him roll this process out to the other departments in our division.
Remember that when you describe a time you demonstrated leadership, your answer is going to be unique from anyone else’s.
(At least, it should be!)
Instead of giving a generic answer about a team or project that you lead, you should be as detailed as you can.
If possible, go one step further and take a look at the job description.
Try to find any obvious leadership skills that the company might desire and customize your answer according to the job description.
(Interested in taking your interview preparation to the next level? Check out our article on the 50 Top Job Interview Questions & Answers.)