If you are a candidate for a leadership or managerial position, you can expect your interviewer to ask probing questions like “How often do you find yourself naturally assuming leadership roles?” You might also be asked to describe a time you took a leadership position when you did not have the title of a leader.
Even if the position does not call for strong leadership skills, or you don’t have much professional leadership experience at work, you could draw on your life experiences to approach both questions by assuming leadership meaning.
This post will provide advice on how to address those questions, and will cover:
- Why organizations value leaders
- What leadership traits you need to display
- Defining leadership as distinct from management
- Why knowing your leadership style is important
- How to answer leadership questions during an interview
Why organizations value leaders
As someone who wants to join their team, when you display well-developed or good potential as a leader, experience has shown you are a candidate who will remain loyal and stay with the organization longer. Likewise, good leaders are always in the running for promotion to increasing levels of responsibility.
What leadership traits you need to display
When the interviewer asks about leadership, you need to be prepared to show you have a strong foundation in the philosophy of leadership, as well as a repertoire of workplace or real-life experiences:
- Did you lead projects in your previous jobs?
- Does your academic background include accomplishments in the face of leadership challenges?
- What kind of leader are you?
Defining leadership as distinct from management
Say that you are asked to define the difference between management and leadership. Know that managers and leaders are supervisors, and it is possible for the roles of managers and leaders to overlap.
Not all managers are leaders.The main difference is that a boss has the power and authority to set priorities, control the flow of work, and supervise people. Bosses can be authoritarian, democratic, or laissez-faire (passive). They are rarely required to take pure leadership roles of leaders who are best at:
Teaching and inspiring employees
While managers can delegate tasks, monitor the work progress, and make sure due dates are met, leaders do much more. They guide their employees by:
- setting realistic expectations
- ensuring everyone has the skills, tools, and understanding needed to complete each objective
- motivate and coach employees and keep them excited about reaching goals
Promoting and encouraging open and honest communication
Some managers prefer to keep detailed information to themselves and are reluctant to share inside information or extensive resources with their subordinates. Leaders, on the other hand, know the empowerment of knowledge and that power is used best when it is shared.
People doing the work need the information to work more efficiently. In turn, the leader who entrusts everyone with that knowledge boosts morale and productivity.
Accepting accountability and responsibility
The best leaders take full responsibility when something does not go as planned. Everyone has known managers who focus the blame for failure on their employees, or even mete out discipline with no guidance on ways to improve performance.
So, good leaders know that when they accept responsibility for their own shortcomings and actions, team members are likely to do the same.
Promoting employee success
The best leaders are driven by watching their employees grow in competence. Leaders are mentors and teachers, who feel pride and joy when their team contributes to the success of the organization.
Outstanding leaders never feel threatened by top performers. Their leadership is focused on training their successors as a legacy of their own leadership accomplishments.
Recognizing top performance
Napoleon Bonaparte knew the value of motivating his soldiers with awards and medals. He said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Good leaders know that recognizing top performers through awards, incentives, and group recognition both sustains the performer and motivates others.
Listening to employees and learning from them
Leaders do not set up barriers between themselves and their employers. The best leader takes the time to understand and recognize obstacles to good performance to help overcome them. Employees in the care of good leaders want to work harder because they know that they are valued and that they don’t have to struggle and work in a vacuum of confusion and uncertainty.
Experiencing the fire in the belly and passion for their work
The best leaders, regardless of industry, have one trait in common: they are passionate about their work. That work can be the arduous and time-consuming process of hiring or firing team members, but good leaders have a passion that is underpinned by purpose. They keep the big picture and the future in perspective.
Why knowing your leadership style is important
There is a world of difference between the leadership styles of Dale Carnegie and General George Patton. Your own leadership philosophy lies somewhere between those two extremes and could be one or a blend of the following leadership styles:
- You are pragmatic. You are competitive, driven, and value hitting goals above everything. You have high standards and tend to drive yourself and team members to meet work objectives.
- You are an idealist. You want to learn and grow, and you want everyone on your team to do the same. You are a high-energy achiever and a strong believer that everyone you lead has the potential to grow and achieve.
- You are a dependable steward. Your leadership style is loyal and helpful. You consider yourself a calming and stabilizing influence on your team. As a steward, you are the rock of your organization—dependable, loyal, and helpful.
- You are a diplomat. Your affiliative skills keep your group together and promote personal bonds with your team and fellow employees. You value interpersonal loyalty and are the “social glue” that keeps your workgroup together.
Read more about leadership styles and take the 13-question leadership quiz on the LeadershipIQ website.
In deciding what kind of leader you are—and hope to become—it would be useful to take a personal inventory. Brainstorm your personal and professional experiences and arrive at a composite of your leadership philosophy. Then put it in writing, for example:
“I would describe my leadership style as a blend of pragmatism, dependability, and a tendency to be diplomatic in the face of controversy and conflict. I know that when people work together, conflicts and misunderstandings can arise.
“So, when conflicts arise, I remember that people behave in ways that make perfect sense to themselves. The key is discovering why and letting positive expectations guide me when I have to be decisive and pragmatic and get on with the task.”
How to answer leadership questions during an interview
Q1: How often do you find yourself naturally assuming leadership roles?
The employer is looking for either an accomplished or a potential natural leader. There are some so-called born leaders who have the personality and characteristics and gravitate towards leadership roles throughout their lives.
Natural-born leaders have a combination of skills that include the social ability of extroverts, the self-confidence and courage to take risks, and an assertive boldness that could come across as overconfidence and bossiness.
The bottom line is that natural leaders have an overpowering need to control and exercise the power to solve problems, correct injustice, and influence others to their point of view.
“I consistently find myself naturally assuming leadership roles. In my family life, I am quick to intervene when my children are going down the wrong path. I try to encourage them to tell me what’s going on in their lives, and I never punish them for honesty.
“My past employment has been with companies who provide products (or public services) that seek to make their customers’ (or the public’s) lives better. As I gained more professional experience and confidence, I have developed a knack for spotting trouble and sniffing out inefficiencies that cost my company money.
“So, if speaking up and suggesting ways to avoid waste in hours and materials are the equivalent of naturally assuming leadership roles, I have done that throughout my personal and working life.”
(Give some examples of how your leadership resulted in increased efficiency or savings.)
Q2: Describe a time you took a leadership position when you did not have the title of a leader.
This is an opportunity to show the interviewer that you have the potential for growth into positions of increased responsibility. Talk about your initiative and how you took charge in a difficult situation. For example:
- Describe a time when your boss phoned in sick and you stepped up to complete a time-sensitive task.
- Talk about a time when you were on your own in the field or in the office and you had to quickly resolve a customer complaint without the benefit of your supervisor.
Try to frame your anecdotes to show how your leadership could provide value to your new position.