How to answer interview questions about leadership
Strong leaders are the backbone of any organisation. They can rally a team, nurture employees and, when necessary, address problems head-on.
As Simon Sinek says: "A boss has the title. A leader has the people."
There's a difference between being a boss and being a leader. Being in a position of authority doesn’t necessarily make you a strong leader.
That’s why interview questions about leadership are looking for evidence that you can do much more than be in charge of a team.
Instead, they are interested in your understanding of what makes a good leader and how you practice that philosophy in your role.
Why do interviewers ask questions about leadership?
What makes a good leader? Perhaps it’s easier to start with what makes a bad one.
A bad leader:
- Undermines employees
- Never gives credit
- Leads with fear
- Has no confidence in team members
- Rarely delegates tasks
- Always attributes blame and rarely takes responsibility
- Is set in their ways
- Gives unconstructive feedback (or no feedback at all)
- Doesn’t allow the opportunity to fix problems
Good leaders, on the other hand, are great nurturers. They live and breathe their team’s success, and encourage employees to develop themselves.
Unlike poor leaders, good leaders take on their fair share of responsibility, while listening to employees’ opinions and offering guidance.
A good leader is like the captain of a tightly-run ship. Without a strong crew, the ship won't sail, but the crew knows it can rely on the captain to steady the course.
And of course, what do bad captains face? Mutiny!
Poor leaders will encounter a lack of team engagement, leading to poor productivity and even worse results. A good leader, on the other hand, inspires their team to greatness.
All this is to say that when it comes to interview questions about leadership, interviewers are looking for evidence that you can distinguish between being a boss or manager and being a leader. Demonstrate your savviness in that regard and you’re off to a great start.
Interview questions about leadership styles
While there are many ways to be a bad leader, there are also many ways to be a good leader.
But even though good leaders share common attributes, most leaders will take different approaches.
Our very own Chief Executive, Michelle Lownie, puts it well when she explains: “There are many people whose work styles I admire, but I never try to emulate them. That wouldn’t serve me, because it wouldn’t be authentic.
“Being true to yourself, being honest with others and not being afraid to give transparent feedback are some of the best ways to lead, in my opinion.”
A good leader will have a good sense of themselves, and won’t be afraid to bring their authentic selves to their roles.
So, if you’re asked about the type of leader you consider yourself to be, don’t be afraid to discuss how you bring your personality to your role.
For example, if you’re direct and upfront with people, there’s no need to pretend that you’re a gentle leader.
Or, if you’re a highly emotionally intuitive person, there’s no need to fake a ‘frank’ personality.
Just be sure to highlight how your leadership style meets the requirements of a good leader.
The direct leader might want to emphasise how they constructively deliver feedback, and never in front of others.
The emotionally intuitive person might want to emphasise how they ensure their team delivers to deadlines and how they avoid being a pushover.
There is no one right way to be a leader, but leading with authenticity will always set you up for success.
Leadership Interview Questions
Here are some ways you might be asked about your leadership skills at interview:
- What makes a strong leader?
- What makes a bad leader?
- What’s the difference between a boss and a leader?
- How would you describe your leadership style?
- How would you respond to an employee who consistently arrived to work late?
- Tell me about a time you showed strong leadership skills
- How would you help an unproductive team improve its performance?
- How do you motivate people?
- Tell me about your favourite boss. What traits of theirs did you admire?
- How would you respond to negative criticism of your team from the leadership board?
- Describe a time when you needed to resolve a disagreement between colleagues
- When was the last time you implemented an employee’s idea?
- What challenges have you experienced as a leader? How did you overcome them?
Remember, leadership interview questions are often competency-based, so make sure when you’re answering to refer to your own experiences instead of giving an abstract response.
Leadership Example Answers
Although you're applying for a leadership role, you might not have direct leadership experience, in the sense that you haven’t held a managerial position.
If that’s the case, it’s still likely that you have leadership skills that you can reference.
Here are some examples you could draw from in your answer:
- Providing training to a junior member of staff
- Taking charge of a group project
- Listening to other team members and collaborating to perform a task
- Proposing new ideas and practical ways to implement them
- Taking a more junior team member’s idea on board and helping them to refine their approach
- Providing mentoring or support to a colleague
- Giving constructive feedback (where appropriate)
- Communicating with your team effectively
Leadership STAR Examples
When you’re answering competency-based interview questions about leadership, using the STAR technique is always the best approach.
As you may remember, STAR stands for:
S - Situation
T - Task
A - Action
R - Result
Here are three STAR example answers for interview questions about leadership.
#1: Tell me about a time you showed strong leadership skills?
I was working on a group project that was behind schedule. My manager asked me to step up to lead the group to ensure we met our deadlines while keeping up the quality of the work.
I needed to work out what was going wrong with the project and find a way to make it right.
I first arranged a meeting with the group, asking everyone to address the challenges that they were facing. Several team members felt that they were inexperienced in this particular area of work, hence the reason for the delay.
I responded with empathy, validating their views that the task at hand was challenging. I also took the opportunity to highlight where things had been going right and where team members had already performed well.
Having identified a lack of experience within the team, I asked my manager for permission to source a more experienced person from the wider organisation to offer guidance.
Having outside support gave the team more confidence that they were going in the right direction.
As a result, the project deliverables soon sped up.
Having reassurance from me that I was confident in their abilities and being praised rather than being criticised also helped to boost motivation in the team.
The project was delivered on time to a great standard.
#2: Describe a time when you need to resolve a disagreement between colleagues
Two members of the team I was leading were both very headstrong. This led to a lot of disagreements in meetings, as both wanted to forge ahead with their own ideas.
While listening to team members’ opinions is important, as a leader, you have to make sure work is moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, the disagreements were overpowering the team dynamic and slowing down progress.
I needed to find a way to get these two team members to work together to avoid further disruption to the team.
I held a private meeting with both team members where I spoke frankly about the friction their disagreements were causing. I highlighted that while both had valuable ideas, their inability to collaborate was disrupting the team.
I then asked them to reflect on how they could work together. Rather than forcing the issue there and then, I suggested that they discuss the matter themselves and to return in three days with their ideas on how they could best collaborate.
The two returned to my office a week later having held separate discussions about how to put their differences aside.
Allowing them the opportunity to remedy the situation themselves rather than being told how to do it was a much better option for these two headstrong individuals, who would not have responded well to being shut down.
As a result, the team dynamic improved. Both team members acted much more respectfully towards each other and have now collaborated on two projects successfully.
#3: What challenges have you experienced as a leader? How did you overcome them?
In my first leadership position, I needed to quickly earn my team's respect. As an amicable person, my first instinct was to get to know everyone well and to find a way to get along with everyone. However, I noticed that I was struggling to get people to listen to me, and once or twice some of my team directly ignored my instructions.
I needed to change this dynamic quickly. It felt as though I was failing in my leadership position and that I was being walked all over - hardly someone who was commanding respect and steering the direction of the team.
I spoke with a former manager of mine - somebody whose leadership style I admired - and discussed the issues I was having.
They gave me some great advice - they had noticed a tendency in me to sugarcoat feedback to protect others’ feelings. While they liked my approach to kind leadership, they also felt that holding back on feedback was doing a disservice both to myself and my team.
I took that advice on board and resolved to give frank but compassionate feedback from then on. Whenever something wasn’t going to plan, I held honest and constructive conversations with my team, highlighting where things were going wrong and my expectations for the tasks.
Over time, I felt that my team was much more respectful of my leadership position. I soon noticed people listening to and implementing my ideas, as well as checking in with me about their own ideas.
Things went much more smoothly. While I still experience challenges from time to time, I feel that I am much more effective as a leader from that learning experience.
Leadership Final Thoughts
If you were to take away just one thing from this guide to answering leadership interview questions, it would be this: highlight your understanding that being a leader is about much more than being a manager. It’s about your ability to work with, inspire and motivate others.
We hope that you now feel much more confident to answer leadership questions.
Did you know that when you’re placed for an interview through Eden Scott, you receive tailored interview training from an expert career adviser?
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