Leadership Interview Questions and Answers

When asked, "what is the most important skill you're looking for in job candidates", the number one answer given by employers was "leadership". This includes all job candidates, not just those applying to executive and management level positions. Not surprisingly, leadership is one of the most common competencies (ranked just behind teamwork) that come up in behavioral interviews. In fact, some company's entire interview process is made up of leadership behavioral questions.

While management is an important skill companies are seeking, it's only one component of leadership. Management is a hands-on competency that involves planning, organization and controlling functions. In addition to management skills, leadership includes the ability to listen, motivate and inspire.

Even if you're just applying for an entry-level position, you need to be comfortable responding to leadership related interview questions. Every serious job seeker should come to an interview prepared with at least one example of a leadership experience they can share. It doesn't even have to be a job related leadership role. Recent college graduates can talk about leadership experience gained through volunteer work, clubs, projects, or even hobbies.

What exactly are "Leadership Skills"?
We just go done explaining that leadership skills are not the same thing as management skills, even though they're often confused (see above section). However, the term "leadership" often means different things depending on who you ask. So what exactly are "leadership skills"?

Most people understand the word "leadership" to mean having the ability to lead a group of people or an organization. However, as interpreted by most executives, employers and hiring managers, leadership include much more than just managing people and projects.

The term "leadership skills" typically encapsulates several business critical competencies including effectively communicating vision, motivating and inspiring others to excel, empowering others, help others to grow and develop, turning vision into reality, delegating responsibility, and making tough decisions. These are the skills that interviewers will be testing for when conducting behavioral leadership interviews.

Leadership Interview Questions
With respect to the job interview, hiring managers are typically trying to determine if you have the type of leadership skills and competencies required to be team leader, department head or manager (either immediately or down the road).

Below are several of the most popular interview questions asked about leadership ability.

  • Explain a situation where you served as a leader during: a group project, an organized work project or activity, or a community service project. Explain in detail your role and how individuals responded to your leadership.
  • Please provide an example of how you've demonstrated leadership skills.
  • Please share with me time when you effectively delegated.
  • Tell me of instance where you lead by example.
  • Explain a situation where you had an opinion that differed from a manager. Were you able to persuade the manager to change his or her opinion?
  • Explain a time when subordinates you supervised disagreed with your directives. How did you handle it?
  • Tell me about someone you have mentored or coached to achieve success?
  • How do you resolve conflict? What specific strategies have you used to be successful?
  • If your managers were asked to rate your leadership skills, how would they reply? What would subordinates say about your leadership style?

Directly below you'll find other common behavioral questions designed to learn about your leadership style and ability. Practicing these questions will help you prepare for leadership questions relating to managing projects, making decisions and communicating with others.

Project Leadership Interview Questions

  • How frequently do you meet with project members?
  • Identify important project members?
  • What steps do you take to motivate others?
  • Explain how you've solved a conflict by utilizing effective listening skills?
  • How do you organize projects and prioritize tasks?
  • Provide examples of when and why you were satisfied with past project results?
  • Can you reach project objectives in fast-paced settings?
  • Do you meet project deadlines? If you haven't met a deadline in the past, explain why.
  • Do you effectively delegate responsibilities? Could you have better utilized team members' assistance in the past?

Interviewers want to discover the methods you utilize to organize projects, supervise others, and meet objectives. Be sure to explain in detail the steps you take when overseeing projects and handling common problems. Interviewers will want to know how you: delegate responsibility and utilize team members, manage time to meet deadlines, and motivate others.

Decision Making Leadership Questions

  • Explain a circumstance where you made a decision without all the relevant facts.
  • What steps do you take to resolve complicated problems?
  • Explain a time when you changed an opinion after acquiring new facts and data.
  • Explain a situation where you made an incorrect conclusion. What factors led to it?
  • Should a decision maker be right all the time?

Effective leaders typically make smart choices. They must also be willing to make unpopular decisions or act when others are unwilling. People often avoid making important decisions because they fear they'll become unpopular or be criticized by management. When answering these questions, provide personal examples from previous work experiences. Describe the steps you take to solve problems, make decisions, conduct risk management, and evaluate results.

Personal Communication Leadership Questions

  • Do you prefer relaying information through public speaking or written reports?
  • How do you formulate arguments and present them to others?
  • What are other ways of communicating aside from speaking? How do you utilize non-verbal communication?
  • How do you clarify unclear or vague messages?
  • What steps do you take to remain engaged during conversations?

Poor communication is the root of many work problems. When co-workers fail to communicate, organizational efficiency breaks down and time must be devoted to correct avoidable problems.

When asked about how you communicate with colleagues, describe in detail how you relay important messages and follow up. Also, describe how you listen attentively to others and ask good follow up questions.

How to Answer Questions About Leadership
While no one likes to brag about themselves, this is one question where you are required to sell yourself. When answering questions about your leadership ability or potential, it's important to be truthful, but if you're too humble you may end up selling yourself short.

The best way to ensure you perform well on leadership questions is to prepare in advance. The best way to prepare is to develop a great leadership interview story using the STAR format.

The STAR format allows you to develop a general structure for your response, using bullets to identify each key aspect of your story, without scripting it word-for-word. Below is an example of how to use the STAR format to present a leadership experience for the question, "Describe for me a time when you were required to lead and motivate people you worked with."

S/T (Situation/Task)
The first step of the STAR format is to provide a brief description of the situation or task. You want to give just enough background information to paint a vivid picture, but you don't want to overwhelm the interviewer with too much detail. Keep the focus on the overall leadership challenge you faced.

Example Situation/Task Bullets

  • When I worked with Bear Sterns during the recession, lay-offs were a weekly occurrence.
  • My team had to absorb the duties of other employees that had been let go, while still facing the possibility of being laid off themselves.
  • Consequently, we were working around the clock and morale was low.
  • Since the members of my team were wearing many hats and working over time, mistakes were being made.
  • As the team leader, I was responsible for maintaining optimal performance and rebuilding morale during this difficult time.

A (Approach)
After explaining the situation, elaborate on the actions you took to address the challenge. Specifically, communicate to the interviewer how your leadership was instrumental in overcoming the challenge. What was your leadership strategy? Did you empower others to help solve the problem? Were you open to feedback from your team? Did you make everyone feel valued, like they were part of the solution? Make sure to demonstrate that you were more than just a great manager. Show that you were a great leader.

Example Situation/Task Bullets

  • I held a meeting with my entire team to discuss strategies for dealing with the challenges we faced.
  • I let my team know that I appreciated the hours of hard work they were performing, notwithstanding the stress they were all dealing with.
  • I let my team know that I didn't have all the answers and was looking to them to identify ways that we could more efficiently deal with the extraordinary work load.
  • I let them know there were no right answers, and no stupid ideas. We were brainstorming and everyone's suggestions would be respected, considered and appreciated.
  • We spent several hours brainstorming ideas on paper, then as a team identified the three ideas with the most potential. Each member of the team was then assigned to do a little bit more research to determine how implementable each idea was.

R (Results)
At the end of the day, it's all about results. You're STAR leadership story should effectively communicate that you can deliver results, even in the face of adversity. Tell the interviewer how your actions led to positive outcomes for your team, and for your employer. Also, use quantifiable results as much as possible. Adding real numbers to your outcomes makes them that much more impressive (e.g., increased sales by 50%, cut costs by 15%, etc). When quantifiable results aren't available, used compelling anecdotal results (e.g., saved one of the company's most valuable accounts).

Example Situation/Task Bullets

  • Involving the entire team in the process of addresses the challenges we faced and finding a solution made them feel empowered. Instead of running around worried, they focused their energies on finding a solution.
  • The ideas shared were immediate, and high quality. The team members worked together, as one, trying to find a solution that would benefit the entire team, and our employer. Within 1 hour we had come up with several very good and original ideas for addressing the problems we faced. Best of all, there was complete buy in from all team members.
  • One idea that everyone liked was to eliminate several policies that were necessary when the company was larger but were no longer necessary due to employee layoffs. Eliminating these policies increased productivity by at least 30%.
  • Another idea that we implemented was to focus all our energies on our top accounts. While we did have several smaller accounts fall off our books, we were able to save most of the company's top accounts, and relationships, whereby ensuring the longer term viability and financial stability of the firm.
  • A great idea offered by one of the newest members of our team (and company) was to allow newer employees to take on responsibilities usually only tackled by more experienced and seasoned managers. The results were surprising. Many of our younger associates accepted the challenge and performed at a levels unheard of in our industry.
  • As a result of the success of our brainstorming meeting, we decided to incorporate a similar brainstorming session in each of our monthly staff meetings.
  • Not only is productivity up, but morale has never been higher - notwithstanding, the fact that we still face many challenges.

More Tips for Answering Behavioral Leadership Questions

1. Choose a Powerful Leadership Example
  • Make sure to prepare a powerful leadership example before you get to the interview. If you wait until you're asked the question, you may not be able to think of a strong example on a moments notice. Your leadership example should show off your leadership skills and experience.
  • Use a unique example that is tailored to the position you're applying for. Before arriving at the interview, carefully review the position and try to identify the type of leadership skills the interviewer is looking for. Develop a customized leadership story, based on your experience, that show cases leadership skills that will directly benefit your prospective employer.
  • Be honest and keep it real. Saying something like, "Everyone who's ever worked with me has commented that I'm one of the best leaders they've worked with in years" isn't only boring, it's not believable. Share real leadership experiences that the interviewer can identify with.
  • Avoid leadership examples that don't have happy endings, even if you demonstrated good leadership. If you were promoted to team leader for a team that was an utter failure, find a different story to tell, even if your position was not as glamorous.

2. Be Specific
  • Your goal is to tell a story that is believable and memorable. Chances are that whoever interviews you is also going to be interviewing several other job candidates. Demonstrate how you were a leader by including detail and results that are relevant to your prospective employer.
  • While you want to provide enough detail to make your leadership story compelling, you also need to be concise. Don't go off on a tangent, especially if you didn't prepare your story in advance. Stay focused by employing the STAR format.
  • Don't script your story. You want to prepare your leadership story in advance, but you don't want to come off in the interview as if you're reciting something you've rehearsed again and again. Come to the interview prepared with a framework that helps you remember the main points of your story and helps you to stay focused, but don't script your story.

3. Practice. Practice. Practice.
  • Once you've used the STAR approach to frame your leadership story, practice, practice,practice. Practicing can make all the difference in the world when it comes to pulling off the perfect leadership interview. Job candidates who practice usually get more job offers than those who don't. Practicing will dramatically increase your chances of getting a job offer.

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