How Do You Answer the Interview Question: "How Do You Lead Others?"

interview question how do you lead others

The types of interview questions you are likely to face are somewhat predictable, but they may vary depending on the type of job you’re applying for. When applying for a position as a supervisor, manager or for any role where you will be responsible for directing the work of others it’s likely that you will be asked the question: “How do you lead others?”

Particularly if you’ve served in a formal leadership role—either in the military or in another job setting—you will have ample opportunity to share your leadership style. But, even if you haven’t held a formal leadership role, there are still ways that you can offer relevant insights into your leadership capabilities and potential.

Leadership in the Military

In the military, of course, leadership is critical. Successful leadership can mean the difference between a successful mission and the loss of lives. Because of the critical nature of military leadership, role models generally model a very autocratic style of leadership—a style that may or may not be appropriate in a civilian job setting. Still, the “11 Principles of Armed Forces Leadership” is sound and could readily apply in civilian leadership roles:

  • Know yourself and seek self-improvement

  • Be technically and tactically proficient

  • Develop a sense of responsibility among your subordinates

  • Make sound and timely decisions

  • Set an example

  • Know your people and look out for their welfare

  • Keep your people informed

  • Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions

  • Ensure assigned tasks are understood, supervised, and accomplished

  • Train your people as a team

  • Employ your team in accordance with its capabilities

If you’ve served in a leadership role in the military there may likely be no better example to illustrate the competencies you’ve developed. But even if you haven’t, chances are good that you have other relevant information to share.

Related Article: How Do You Work as a Member of a Team?

What Employees Generally Want From Their Leaders

Regardless of whether or not you’ve ever held a leadership role, chances are good that you’ve been led by others. Certainly you’ve had various leaders throughout your military career—some likely better than others. Considering your own preferences in leaders and the skills you’ve seen in those you’ve reported for or served under can give you some insights into the qualities that are likely to be held in high regard.

Research can provide other insights. An Interact/Harris Poll of 1000 U.S. workers reported in Harvard Business Review gives some insights into the top issues that can negatively affect employee perspectives of their leaders. Communication—or lack thereof—is a clear theme.

communication issues that prevent effective leadership

Knowing how important communication is, you can’t go wrong by leading your response with a comment like: “I’ve learned that effective communication is very important in any position, but especially in a leadership role.” You could then go on to explain how you’ve communicating with those you’ve led or what you’ve learned about effective communication from observing your leaders.

Turn Lack of Specific Experience Into Insightful Reflection

While you shouldn’t respond to a question like this by saying: “I’ve never been in a leadership role,” you could turn the question around to provide insights from a different perspective. For instance: “While I’ve never been in a formal leadership role, over the years I’ve learned a lot from those I’ve reported to—both on the job and throughout my military career.” Then go on to share some specific lessons learned, including specific examples, to illustrate how you might apply those learnings in your own leadership role.

Draw Upon Informal Leadership Experiences

Even if you’ve never been in a formal leadership role, chances are that you’ve been in situations where you’ve informally led others. These situations are valid and relevant and good to share, particularly if you can point to positive outcomes that came from your leadership.

  • Have you led a project team?

  • Have you ever led a fundraising effort?

  • Have you taken the lead in working with others to achieve a specific goal?

Even taking the lead to plan a social event can involve leadership skills that could be translated to the workplace. Cast a wide net when considering your own leadership skills to come up with some solid points about your leadership style and preferences.

A Focus on Flexibility

One important aspect of leadership is being flexible in leadership style to accommodate the needs of your team and desired outcomes. Conveying during your interview that you recognize that different settings, and different individuals, will help to position yourself as a flexible leader who is attuned to specific situations and able to adjust style accordingly.

In situations where you may sense that the interviewer, or interviewers, might feel that your military leadership experience might make you too autocratic or authoritative for their setting, it may be especially important to point out your flexibility and the recognition that a leader in marketing department, for instance, would likely not need to be as authoritative as a leader in a surgery suite or fire department.

Regardless of the industry, setting or type of work you will be doing, the ability to flex your leadership style to fit specific situations and connect well with specific individuals is really the mark of an effective leader. A statement like: “Over time, I’ve learned to be flexible in my leadership style to adapt to different personality types and situations,” can be a good way to convey your adaptability.

If you’ve applying for a position where you will be responsible for leading others—either formally or informally—you can be virtually certain that you will be asked questions about your leadership style. It pays to be prepared both with specific responses as well as good examples to illustrate how you’ve led others and how others have responded to your leadership.

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