Job Interview Question: Describe a Time You Demonstrated Leadership

Regardless of the level of the position that you’re applying for, you can always expect questions about leadership. It’s a common misconception that leadership questions are only asked during job interviews for management positions. Therefore, it’s important that you prepare several examples about how you demonstrated your leadership skills in the past, should this interview question come up. This way, you can always take advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate your leadership skills to convince the interviewer that you’re the right person for the job.

Other ways the interviewer can ask you about your leadership skills in the form of behavioral interview questions:

  • Tell me about a time you delegated effectively
  • Describe a time when you took the lead on a difficult team project
  • Tell me about a time when you led by example
  • How would you describe your leadership style?
  • Describe a time where you have coached or mentored others to achieve success
  • Tell me about a time you led an important meeting
  • Describe a time that you led a team to a successful outcome
  • How would your team describe your leadership style?

No matter how these questions are asked, the interviewer wants to hear concrete examples to get an understanding of your leadership skills or your leadership potential. Read more about frequently asked job interview questions here.

Why the interviewer is asking about your leadership skills

When the interviewer asks you about a time when you demonstrated leadership, they care about your leadership abilities and are more than likely to use your answer as a factor in deciding who to hire for the job. Questions such as ‘describe a time you demonstrated leadership’ are behavioral job interview questions. This category of questions requires you to give specific examples of how you demonstrated certain competencies in the past. These questions usually begin with:

  • Tell me about a time (..)
  • Describe a time when (..)
  • Give me an example of (..)

The thought behind these behavioral job interview questions is to gain an understanding of your past job performance. For the interviewer, your past performance is the best way to predict your future performance on the job.

In this particular situation, the interviewer is interested in your experience in managing others, but also if you’re a strong example for your co-workers. Whether you are applying for a graduate or entry-level position at a company or senior-level position, it’s always good to be able to show the interviewer that you have the skills and potential to move up the ranks into leadership positions.

Employers are always looking for candidates who can motivate and inspire their teammates, even if they are not technically in a management position. In short, leadership is not just about management and initiative. It’s also about the ability to spread ideas and passions to other people in your team. Therefore, no matter what position you’re applying, leadership skills are always desired.

Tips for answering ‘Describe a Time You Demonstrated Leadership’

When the interviewer asks you about your leadership style or a time when you demonstrated leadership, it means that they care about your leadership ability and potential. They are not just interested in your ability to delegate, but also in other skills that are needed to run a team, department, or organization in general. It’s therefore important that you choose a suitable example to demonstrate your skills.

The examples you give do not have to regard direct leadership. You can imagine that if a company hires you, they might want to give you a promotion within due time. Maybe the company wants to hire someone who can lead by example and mentor or coach new employees within a year etc. There are all sorts of reasons for the interviewer to ask about your leadership skills. Whatever the reason may be, the interviewer is looking for an answer that demonstrates how you lead and how comfortable you are actually doing it.

So, now that you know what the interviewer wants to hear, you can figure out what kind of answer you should give in your situation.

Focus points when demonstrating leadership

  1. Focus on a (relatively) recent example

Mentioning a situation that occurred years ago will not impress the interviewer. This will also raise questions and could lead to follow-up questions. The interviewer might ask, ‘what did you do to develop your leadership skills since that moment?

  1. Never say ‘I have never led anyone.’

This is the worst answer you can give. Think of your most impressive leadership experience, whether this was on a sports team, in a class project or previous position. Avoid answers such as ‘I’m not the leader type of person,’ ‘I’m not sure if I possess any leadership skills’ or that ‘you’ve never led people in the past.’

  1. There’s no right or wrong answer

When you’re asked to demonstrate your leadership skills, the interviewer is interested in your approach. In other words, tell them what works or has worked for you in the past. Make sure you come across as reasonable, easy to get along with, and effective.

  1. Use specific examples

You can start off by describing your general style of management and follow-up with a specific situation. You can also ask the interviewer ‘would you like to hear an example of a time when I applied this?’. The interviewer will probably say yes, and you can walk them through a specific example. Make sure you talk about how you have used your leadership skills to make a project successful in the past. Also, ensure that you talk about the results that followed your actions. If you can quantify these results, this is even better.

  1. Humanize your leadership

You’re not a robot. Give the interviewer insights into your authentic personality and style of leadership.

  1. Demonstrate your ability to motive

Show how you motivate others. What actions do you take to inspire others, and how are you involved?

  1. Avoid being too descriptive

Don’t tell the interviewer step by step how you tell people what they should do and how they should do it. When talking about your leadership style, it should be about inspiring team members, motivating them, and influencing them in the right way to achieve accomplishments as a team that cannot be done as individuals.

Examples of common leadership styles

  1. Showing leadership by leading by example.

Example answer:

‘Leading by example, has gotten me the best results with the teams that I worked with. Whenever a new project starts, I demonstrate leadership by taking the needed actions to kick the project off and demonstrating what must be done. I make sure that I organize the team in such a way that everybody is on the same page. This way, everybody understands their responsibilities to contribute to the project equally.’

  1. Leadership by delegating tasks and making team members better.

Example answer:

‘By clearly structuring my team, finding the strengths of all team members and delegating tasks, we were able to bring the projects to success. A lot of projects were in collaboration with different departments, so members of teams would change. At the start of each new project, I would review all backgrounds to ensure every member would get to do what they’re best at. Delegating tasks and combining the strengths of the team members to create a team effort resulted in us delivering results that were impossible to get when each department worked individually.’

  1. Showing leadership through the facilitation of communication.

Example answer:

‘Clear communication is one of my main skills. During projects, I facilitate an open and accessible environment to make sure that there are clear expectations, and there is open communication. By demonstrating confidence in the team and their ability to complete the project, I try to get the best out of every member on the team and make them perform to the best of their abilities.’

STAR-method (Situation, Task, Action, Result)

When you structure your answer, always follow the STAR-method. This method will help you clarify the situation, tasks, actions, and results in concrete and concise. This is also what the interviewer is looking for. They use this method to see if you can provide all relevant information about a specific ability that is required on the job that you’re applying for. Below the STAR-method is discussed in more detail, and samples are given. Remember, this is just a sample to indicate what it could look like and what information you could include. Ensure that your answer is unique from everybody else’s and avoid generic examples.

Situation

Begin by telling the interviewer a recent situation that you encountered.

Sample situation:

‘In my previous job, where we ran behind on a new company-wide system upgrade that was going to fix issues we had with our online orders. The delay in implementation took longer than expected and caught us off guard. We had the holidays coming up, which counts for almost 25% of our annual revenue. My team had to work double shifts to process all orders, and the outlook was that this was needed until the system upgrade was placed. This led to people being stressed and overworked, which cause the team morale to drop.’

Task

What was your task, and what was your objective? In other words, what were you required to achieve?

Sample task:

‘As the team manager, it was my responsibility to get the team performance back to normal.’

Action

What actions did you take to fulfill your task? Tell the interviewer what you did, why you took that action, and if you had any alternatives in the specific situation.

Sample action:

‘I gathered the team to discuss the situation. I expressed my appreciation for their effort during this challenging situation for the department and company in general. During our meeting, I called upon their assistance to find a way for the team to work more efficiently, including myself, for however long the system update was not implemented yet. I actively participated in the group’s brainstorming session and encouraged the team members to talk freely and discuss options. After an hour, we created a shortlist of options on which we voted. I created teams of two within the team to further investigate how we could implement the discussed options.’

Result

Finally, discuss the results of your actions. What was the outcome of your actions, and did you reach your objective? It’s also a good idea to discuss what you learned from the experience and if you applied what you learned in other situations.

Sample of a result:

‘The reaction of the team to this approach was very positive. They appreciated being involved in such an important process to work on a solution that would benefit both the team and the company. By working together and focussing on a shared goal, the team worked in a productive and creative way to find a solution. Also, the fact that their ideas would be heard immediately helped to come up with several solutions that could be implemented right away. These solutions saved us valuable time and energy. One of the ideas was to bring in temporary workers that could be trained on the job by the current team members for as long as the update was not implemented. This ultimately led to us hitting our marks for the holiday season. We were able to reach the needed levels of revenue.’

The learning: ‘Listening to team members and quickly taking action to follow-up to their ideas really helped increase work efficiency and morale. Based on this positive experience, we decided to include such brainstorming and idea evaluations into our monthly meetings. This way, team members would stay more engaged, and we would get more knowledge of what actually goes own in the heads of the team members. Also, there’s now a plan in place with the HR department in case such a situation occurs again in the future to make sure we always have enough people to perform up to our potential.’

Sample answers to demonstrate your leadership skills

Sample 1 (demonstrating leadership):

‘When I worked at XYZ as a project manager, the company hit a rough patch which led to company-wide layoffs. My team consisted of ten team members, but after the layoffs, we remained with six, but we were still responsible for the duties of the four co-workers that left the company. As a result, we fell behind on production and team morale suffered as well. This, in turn, led to more errors on the work floor. As the project manager, I was ultimately responsible for team performance, so it was my duty to get the team back on track.

I got together with the team to discuss the problems they encountered and to discuss strategies on how we could work our way through these issues. First and foremost, I complimented them on their effort and dedication during this complex time for everyone. After hearing their challenges, I asked them to give suggestions on how we could solve them and how we could increase our effectiveness and efficiency. We brainstormed for over an hour in which every team member had his or her say, and wrote down ideas that could benefit us. After a team vote, we prioritized the ideas, and each team member got assigned a task.

Results:

The team reacted very positively after being included in the approach to solve the issues in this challenging time. They were able to present their own solutions and could immediately start research the feasibility. We came up with specific ideas that could be implemented fairly quickly and increase efficiency.

First off, we asked our team assistants to clean up the agenda’s of everybody on the team so that only important meetings remained. Then, we asked the team assistants to pick up some tasks that were burdens for the other team members. This way, the team could analyze the additional work that needed to be done and share these tasks among each other. This made the team more efficient and effective. Also, it boosted the morale up again because even though it was a challenge and a lot of work, team members knew what they needed to do and what their responsibilities were. 

By actively involving the team in important decisions about team strategy, we got better results. We decided to implement such brainstorm sessions into our monthly meetings.’

Sample 2 (taking up leadership unexpectedly):

‘At my previous job, I was working as a telemarketer for a large organization. My team’s overall sales figures were falling behind on our planning, and my manager asked everybody on the team to come up with solutions to improve our sales. From my work experience at XYZ company, I had knowledge of structuring sales courses from which we could all benefit. I created a presentation on a solution that might help the team in terms of changing our sales training method and strategy. My manager appreciated my idea and gave me a chance to set up my own team to implement this solution in our team to test it out.

With a team of five, we went to work and developed and implemented a new training strategy that suited our markets and clients better. After the first quarter of implementing the new training, we saw that sales figures were catching up, which in turn led to increased skills and confidence in the sales team. My manager decided to implement this new sales training strategy in other teams as well. I think my communication skills and ability to substantiate why I think an idea would work led to the successful outcome of this project.’