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Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Leadership

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Part of our ongoing series to help you answer common behavioral interview questions.

Tell Me About Your Leadership Skills


Behavioral interview questions are standard now for companies in all industries — especially Fortune 500 companies.

These behavioral questions (“Tell me about a time…”) probe for examples of how candidates have demonstrated desired competencies in the past.

Of the many competencies that come up in behavioral interviews, leadership ability is one of the most common (I would rank it as #2 most popular after the teamwork question). In fact, I know of one highly-regarded company that bases their entire interview process on leadership behavioral questions — for positions at all levels within the organization.

You might think that leadership questions are only relevant for management positions, but that’s a common misconception. Most companies are looking for people with leadership potential even when hiring for entry-level positions.

I recommend that every job seeker prepare at least one example of a leadership experience and get comfortable speaking about it in an interview situation.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be an on-the-job leadership role. Recent grads can speak about leadership experience gained through volunteering, hobbies, clubs, and academic projects.

NOTE: This is Lesson 10 from the Big Interview interview training system. Take a quick look here if you want to learn more about it.

What Do They Mean By Leadership?


One of the challenges is that the term “leadership” means different things to different people. What exactly are “leadership skills”?

Well, in the basic dictionary sense, “leadership” just means leading a group of people or an organization. However, most people see true leadership as something that goes beyond just managing people and projects.

There are countless books and articles about leadership and countless definitions. Here are some of the competencies typically considered “leadership skills”:
taking initiative, communicating a vision, translating vision into reality, inspiring others, making tough decisions, motivating others, empowering others, developing others. (Check out these “100 Best Quotes on Leadership” from Kevin Cruse at Forbes.com for more perspectives on the qualities of a leader).

Behavioral Questions About Leadership


When it comes to the job interview, most hiring managers are looking for the type of leadership skills required to run a team, department or organization (now or in the future).

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular behavioral questions about leadership ability:

• Tell me about a time when you demonstrated leadership skills.

• Tell me about a time that you took the lead on a difficult project.

• When have you delegated effectively?

• Describe a time when you led by example.

• Who have you coached or mentored to achieve success?

• Tell me about a time that you led an important meeting.

There are plenty of other variations on this theme.

Before we give you the step-by-step approach to answering leadership questions like a rock star, here’s a quick refresher on behavioral interview questions in general.

Behavioral Interviewing Refresher

Behavioral interview questions ask for examples of how a candidate has demonstrated specific competencies in the past (the questions usually begin with “Tell me about a time…” or “Give me an example of…”).

The idea is that understanding past job performance is the best way to predict future job performance

Read our Behavioral Interview Questions 101 Guide for more. 

Why Interviewers Ask About Leadership


For the interviewer, the goal is to find out if the candidate has true leadership potential.

For more senior-level roles (any position with direct reports), it’s important to communicate your ability to jump in and assume a leadership role immediately. The best way to do this is to demonstrate that you’ve done it successfully in the past.

For other roles, the leadership challenge may be to lead and motivate people who DON’T report to you. For example, any project management role or position that requires gaining cooperation and/or buy-in from other departments.

For other positions (even entry-level jobs), companies ask about leadership because they want to hire people with leadership potential — individuals who can grow with the company and have superstar potential.

Most companies want to hire the best of the best. Your interviewer wants to know if you have what it takes to help lead the organization into the future.

In most job interviews, you will be competing against many qualified candidates. Most of them can do the job. However, to get hired in a competitive job market, it is essential to be more than qualified. You want to show that you are a leader, a superstar, an influencer.

How to Answer Behavioral Questions About Leadership


This type of question can seem daunting. It requires a bit of bragging and many of us are not comfortable with “selling” ourselves.

If you’re too humble when talking about your leadership experience or potential, you risk selling yourself short.

This is why it’s so important to prepare a great leadership interview story in advance using the STAR format.

The goal is not to script out an answer word-for-word. The STAR format allows you to structure the general shape of your response by jotting down bullets for each of the key aspects of the story. Check out Big Interview for more guidance on structuring great STAR stories — and an Answer Builder tool that you can use to make the process much easier.

Inside Big Interview, our complete training system for job interviews, we give you video lessons, sample answers, and an interactive practice tool for all of these different versions of leadership interview questions. Watch this brief video to learn a little more about Big Interview, and then take a quick look at the step-by-step system we’ve developed to get you ready for your interview.

Sample Answer — “Tell Me About a Time You Had to Lead and Motivate People.”

Here’s an overview of how to use the STAR format specifically to present a leadership experience:

S/T (Situation/Task)

— Briefly describe the project or situation. Give just enough history and/or background to provide context.

Example Situation/Task Bullets

• When I was at ABC Company, we went through some company-wide lay-offs.
• The team of five that remained in the department had to absorb the duties of the two that left.
• As a result, people were overworked and morale suffered.
• At the same time, more mistakes were being made because attention was so scattered.
• As the manager, it was my job to get performance back on track.

Why We Like Them

With these bullets, the candidate quickly paints a picture of the challenge faced. She had to motivate a team of people who were stressed out, negative, and overworked. This scenario obviously required strong leadership skills.

Tip: Avoid the temptation to get bogged down in too much detail. You don’t need to fill the interviewer in on the reasons for the lay-offs, exactly how individual team members responded, or exactly what mistakes were being made.

A (Approach)

— Talk about the key actions that you took. When telling a leadership story, make sure that you convey specifically how you stepped up as a leader. What actions did you take and why? How did your actions demonstrate leadership?

Example Approach Bullets

• I scheduled a meeting of the full team to discuss strategies.
• I communicated my appreciation for all of their hard work during a challenging time for the company.
• 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 — that no idea was stupid and that it was a safe environment for making suggestions.
• We spent an hour capturing ideas on a white board, 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.

Why We Like Them

She gives us a step-by-step breakdown of her leadership strategy. She empowered her people to help solve the problem, she opened herself up to constructive feedback, and she made everyone feel valued and heard.

Tip: Remember that managing a team doesn’t necessarily make you a great leader. It’s important to choose a story that demonstrates true leadership — stepping up to guide or motivate or take initiative, ideally in challenging circumstances.

R (Results)

— A strong STAR interview story always includes a happy ending. Wrap up your example by describing the positive outcome(s) of your action. Quantifiable results are particularly impressive (boosted sales by 32%, saved the organization $19K), but anecdotal results also can work well (My client was delighted and sang my praises to my manager, my VP loved our creative approach and promoted me).

Example Results Bullets

• First of all, the team responded very positively to this approach. They loved the idea of being empowered to help find a solution. Instead of complaining, they channeled their energy in a more productive way once they knew that 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 8 hours each week — including two hours of my time and three hours for my top account manager.
• Another was to train Penny, 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.
• We are now more efficient and morale is way up.
• My boss even asked me to help him roll this process out to the other departments in our division.

Why We Like Them

This is a great happy ending. The candidate covers a number of positive outcomes:

• Increasing morale by empowering the team members

• Improving efficiency and saving 8+ hours per week

• Impressing the big boss so much that he wants other departments to follow the candidate’s approach

Tip: It’s nice to have some specific numbers (freeing up 8+ hours per week), but the anecdotal results are equally impressive in this example. The fact that the candidate’s boss “stole” the idea for other departments shows it was a real success.

More Tips for Handling Behavioral Questions About Leadership

1. Choose a Strong Example:

• Select an example that really shows off your leadership skills. Don’t settle for a weak example (“I was the leader for my group project and everything went okay for the most part.”)

• Customize the example if you can. Review the job description carefully and identify the type of leadership skills required for the role. Often, the desired leadership capabilities are spelled right out in the job description. One position may require managing a large team and another may be looking for someone who can take initiative.

• Don’t try to BS with an answer like, “I consider myself a born leader and have always sought out leadership opportunities over the years.” It’s boring and it doesn’t answer the question.

• This should go without saying, but avoid examples that could raise red flags. For example, don’t talk about leading a project that was an utter failure due to your mistakes.

2. Get Specific About What You Did

• The best stories include enough detail to be believable and memorable. Show how you were a leader in this situation and how it represents your overall leadership experience and/or potential.

• At the same time, you must make an effort to keep the story concise. It can be tempting to go off on tangents, particularly if you haven’t prepared in advance. Using the STAR format will help you keep it focused.

Remember: Don’t try to script your story out word-for-word. The example above is far more scripted than you want or need. We took this approach to make it easy for readers to understand. However, for your own stories, you can just jot down the key bullet points for each section. The idea is to create a framework that ensures you cover the most important and impressive aspects of the experience.

3. Practice

Once you have framed your story using the STAR approach, it’s time to practice.

Please do not skip this step. We know that practicing interview answers is not exactly the most exciting activity. However, it really does make a difference. Academic studies consistently show that candidates who practice get more job offers. I’ve also seen this over several years of working with thousands of clients: Practice makes you a MUCH better interviewer and significantly increases your odds of getting hired.

Humor: If you’re having trouble coming up with some strong leadership stories, The Simpsons demonstrate a powerful technique to use in your next interview

Main Photo Credit: Mr. Soop

Written by

Pamela Skillings

Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.

38 Comment to Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Leadership

  • R. Shashi Kumar

    Hi Pamela
    Give me some great tips for the interview questions of Team Leader in Automotive dealer.

  • R. Shashi Kumar

    Hi Pamela
    Give me some great tips for the interview questions of Team Leader in Automotive dealer.

  • R. Shashi Kumar

    Hi Pamela
    Give me some great tips for the interview questions of Team Leader in Automotive dealer.

  • R. Shashi Kumar

    Hi Pamela
    Give me some great tips for the interview questions of Team Leader in Automotive dealer.

  • Sophia Brunner

    I find this to be a great blog and love all the questions! I find these to be very great questions because I, too, am interested in good interview questions as well as how I should answer them when asked.

  • Praveen

    I am finance professional with 22 yrs of exp in leadership role in Govt setup. Out of this close to 10 years was in IT and 2 yrs in pure administrative domain. Planing to switch over to the Corporate. How should I make myself ready for it.

  • nandini

    hi pamella
    your whole blog is amazing……… all though i m quite young to share my big thoughts on leadership but i think a good leader holds the quality of hearing, hearing to his team mates with patience and clubbing all the ideas to make a powerful move….

  • One of the reasons that managers seek individuals with leadership potential at lower levels is due to delegation. It is easier to delegate to an individual who show potential and is engaged. Those people who need to be constantly monitored are typically individuals you do not want to give extra responsibilities.

  • rama krishna vuppala

    I was asked in the interview, as a Program Manager how do you get the necessary information on high priority item from another person in different project (its a low priority for him)? Can you please suggest?

  • Life Long Learner

    Hi Pamela, I have come across your blog and I really need help. I am interviewing in two days for the 5th time for a supervisor position in an organization I have worked for the past 14 years with one promotion 7 years ago to a Senior position. I have done part-time training and certificate programs over the years in preparation for a supervisor position. Many of my colleagues including management think I am long over due. My challenge is I get nervous and blank out during interviews because I feel the position is very competitive. Any tips will be highly appreciated. I am reading and preparing for the interview and any help is very welcome.

  • Jahangir Khan

    Hi Pamela,

    Please can you give me the hints for my interview presentation topic i.e., ”a leadership role you took in a challenging delivery” and “what you did to
    influence positive outcomes”.
    Regards
    Jahangir

  • Annette

    Hi Pamela—This has been such a big help to me in preparing for an interview. I do have a dilemma though. I know the topics that will be discussed and I can’t decide which one this fits–Leadership or Continuous Improvement. Story: Our process was totally a paper based one. Files upon files. Scanning into a records area took forever and much overtime. I found a program that would interface with our existing program to auto-archive everything in real time and do away with paper. I researched it, brought it to the directors attention, set up meetings with the SME of this new program and eventually got the go ahead to use it. I attended much training and became our groups expert in this software. It did away with all those files and file cabinets and we still use this today–18 years later. Leadership or Continuous Improvement?

  • Fazalkhaliq Niazi

    Hi Ms Pamela,
    Hope this find you well.
    Thank you very much for helping people in there job search. I have given five interviews and have win three of them. Now I am preparing myself for another interview which my be taken in one month. I have difficulty in answering behavioral interview questions. Actually cant make success stories to tell the interviewer. Can you send me some of the effective success stories about problem, conflict, crises and change management. Your cooperation and assistance will be highly appreciated.
    Thanks