How to Answer: “What’s a Time You Exercised Leadership?”

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If you’ve been interviewing for a lot of jobs lately, you’ve probably heard this question several times. If you haven’t, you should be expecting to hear it in upcoming interviews. Like any other common question, you’ll handle this much better if you think about it ahead of time and walk into the interview with a good answer ready to go.
What Is this Question About?
When preparing for any interview question, it’s important to think about what the interviewer really wants to know. Sometimes the question doesn’t ask for exactly the information the interviewer actually wants, but they’re always looking to gather some kind of information about you. If you know what that is, you can get ready with an answer that will help show why you’re the right choice for the job you’re pursuing.
This question is an example of a technique called “behavioral interviewing” that’s becoming more and more popular with HR departments these days. The idea is that interviewers can get a better idea of what you’ll do while working for their company by asking you about things you’ve done in the past than by asking hypothetical questions about what you’d do in the future. Good interviewers will ask follow-up questions to probe even more and learn more about how you’ve handled the situations they care about.
What Makes This Question Difficult?
Traditional questions like “what would you do in X situation” make it fairly easy for candidates to tell interviewers what they want to hear. There’s no way for the interviewer to know whether you’re making things up, and that doesn’t help them figure out whether you’re a good candidate. Behavioral questions are tricky because they make it much easier for an interviewer to use follow-up questions to get a better idea of whether you’re telling the truth. They might ask questions like, “what were you thinking then?” or “why did you decide to approach the problem that way?” Those things are tough to make up an answer to on the fly, so candidates who aren’t being honest will be more likely to be caught.
So What Should I Do?
Knowing about the point of behavioral questions can give you a good start on what to do next: think of a time you actually did exercise leadership. Because interviewers using this style are likely to be good at catching you if you invent a story, it’s especially important to be honest. When choosing a story, it’s best if you can think of one that’s related to your current job or one you had earlier, but you can use something that happened outside of work if you don’t have a work-related option. That’s especially true if you haven’t supervised people before–it’s certainly possible to show leadership even if you’re not officially in charge, but interviewers will also understand that if you haven’t been anyone’s boss before then you might not have had good chances to show off your leadership skills.
Also, try to choose a time when the situation turned out well thanks to your leadership efforts. It may seem obvious that you would want that, but as you’ll see later, you’re going to want to talk about the result and it makes you look a lot better if you can honestly say that you solved a real problem and made things work out well in the end.
I’ve Got a Story. Now What?
Once you’ve decided on the time you want to talk about, now it’s time to figure out what you’ll say about it. You’ll want to start by explaining the situation a little bit so the interviewer has an idea of what was going on and what prompted you to take the lead. This can usually just be one or two sentences, enough to give a general idea of the situation.
Then you’ll move on to what you did. Explain why you decided you were the right person to lead, especially if you weren’t the supervisor. Was your team working on a project that lined up perfectly with a skill you’d developed outside of work, making you the perfect person to take charge? Did you notice that there were tasks being forgotten? Telling the interviewer about that will show your initiative. Just make sure to focus on the fact that you noticed a problem and not on who caused it–you don’t want to come off as someone who constantly complains about their coworkers. Also describe what you did to deal with the situation so the interviewer can see the leadership skills you exercised.
Finally, give the interviewer an idea of what happened after you took the lead. Again, it’s especially good if you can honestly describe a positive outcome that happened because of your efforts. Although this isn’t really the focus of the question, it’s always nice to have a happy ending to the story. It’s worth pointing out again here, though, that you must be honest about it. If you have a great story of leadership solving a major problem and getting your team to make a great accomplishment, and then the interviewer talks to your previous manager and learns that you made up the story, you’re almost certain to lose out on the job.
What Else Do I Have to Do?
Once you have your main answer down, there’s a little more thinking you should do. You may remember that we talked earlier about follow-up questions the interviewer may ask. Because those are probably coming, you should spend a little time thinking about things like what was going through your mind during the events you’re talking about, how other people responded to your actions, and so on. That will leave you ready for the extra questions that come along either during or after your prepared answer.
The Bottom Line
Because behavioral interviewing is so popular these days, it’s more important than ever to be prepared for questions like this one. Leadership is valuable enough that even if the job you’re interviewing for doesn’t involve supervising people, you may very well be asked about it anyway. Spending a little time getting ready will ensure that you’re ready to impress the interviewer with your skills and perfectly position yourself to get that dream job.