“What does leadership mean to you?”
This is a fairly common opinion question that shouldn’t be too difficult to answer, particularly if you have supervisory or management experience to draw from, though it’s certainly not necessary.
In this article, you’ll learn how you can best explain your understanding of leadership in the workplace and form an answer that hits all the right notes in your job interview.
Variations of This Question
Of course, your interviewer might not ask you about leadership in precisely these words. Here are a few more ways the question might be phrased:
- What makes a good leader?
- Why is leadership important?
- What does it mean to be a good leader?
- What skills should an effective leader have?
- What are the important qualities of a leader?
What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know
Despite the indirect nature of this question, the interviewer or recruiter is really trying to gauge how you would approach leading a team.
The question forces you to highlight specific leadership traits and explain their role in the workplace.
From the perspective of an employer, candidates who understand the nuances behind these traits are far more likely to apply them when put into a leadership position themselves.
They also want to know you value working in a team, especially if the role requires a high degree of teamwork and communication.
A leader can’t do everything needed to accomplish a goal; that’s what teams are for. The employer needs to make sure you can engage your team to work together and get the job done.
How to Answer: “What Does Leadership Mean to You?”
Here’s a 3-step process you can use to build your answer:
1. Start With Your Own Definition
Begin by explaining your own definition of leadership, keeping in mind the traits you most value in a leader.
It’s important to mention several traits a good leader should possess to demonstrate that you can apply those traits yourself.
Touch on traits that allow a leader to work well with others, such as patience, respect, and compassion.
Mention traits that allow a leader to inspire others, like positivity, grit, and confidence.
And don’t forget traits that allow a leader to push through adversity and overcome challenges, like persistence, grit, and conscientiousness.
Here’s an example:
“A good leader is flexible and compassionate with the people they’re leading. They should get along well with other people and be approachable. At the same time, they should be conscientious when it comes to meeting goals.”
2. Explain Why Leadership Matters in the Workplace
Next, you’ll need to tell the interviewer why you believe good leadership is important.
Showing that you understand the importance of leadership will show that you value good leadership and that you understand its impact in the workplace, especially where you can relate that back to the industry.
To give you an idea, here are some considerations depending on the industry you’re interviewing for:
- Healthcare: Because patient health has to be the top priority, focus on the importance of putting patient safety first and foremost.
- Banking: Focus on the importance of being a leader who inspires integrity and accuracy.
- Retail: Since turnover can be high in a retail store, focus on the importance of fostering a good team spirit.
Here’s an example:
“Leadership in a retail establishment is beneficial to reduce staff turnover. A good leader should be able to encourage team members to stay on board even during busy or frustrating times. This will improve morale and save the company onboarding costs.”
3. Finish With a Relevant Example
Finally, give an example of how good leadership can benefit the company through an anecdote or a hypothetical example.
This shows you can apply a real-world application of leadership to the industry you aspire to work for, and it allows you to highlight any transferable skills you have that may not be immediately obvious.
Begin with a short backstory to set the stage. Don’t draw this out; you can simply introduce the manager or leader and the scenario.
Describe the problem or situation that the leader had to solve. Again, you shouldn’t include a lot of background information, and you certainly need to keep it generic if needed to avoid compromising anyone’s privacy.
Focus most of your answer on the specific steps taken by the leader to resolve the issue, then wrap it up with the resolution.
Here’s an example:
“When I managed a group of volunteers at the food pantry, one of the volunteers made some remarks that could have caused the recipients to feel uncomfortable. I was careful to be diplomatic and understanding while also firmly explaining the inappropriateness of their comments.”
Putting It All Together (Example Answers)
We’ve laid out the blueprint, but how do you piece it all together to form a complete answer that blows it out of the water?
Check out these sample answers:
Example #1: Office Manager
“A leader in this position should be able to encourage the rest of the staff and be able to work with different personality types. They should be diplomatic, creative, and flexible.
Good leadership is essential in an office manager role in order to align everyone’s goals, meet deadlines, and provide excellent customer service. A manager sets priorities and trains staff as needed.
In my last role, there was some confusion about who was responsible for doing certain reports because they required input from different departments. Our manager recognized that and was able to solve the problem by fairly delegating and outlining responsibilities. It was a team effort.”
Example #2: Retail Supervisor
“A good leader in this role should be able to motivate and encourage employees while also making sure that the customers are the first priority.
They should have integrity, as they’ll be working with money and also representing the company as a whole. In addition, they must be able to be both firm and kind to the staff. A good manager is what keeps the store running smoothly, so they should be calm under pressure.
My previous store manager created an incentive plan to encourage the team to achieve high customer service reviews. The prize was a pizza party for everyone, so it was a team-building effort rather than a competition. We were all inspired to do better.”
Example #3: Healthcare Management
“Leadership means working well with others and encouraging them to do their best. It also means ensuring that safety protocols and policies are followed to the letter by everyone on the team.
Good management is essential in a healthcare role because the way the facility is run directly impacts people’s health. Some characteristics that a leader in this role should have include compassion, competence, and a strong sense of responsibility.
When I worked as the administrator at a nursing home, it came to my attention that a family member of one of the residents was being very disruptive to the staff. I stepped in and spoke directly to the family in question. My staff knew that I had their backs and understood.”
How NOT to Answer
While there’s a certain ambiguity to this question, it’s not one that really that sets up you for failure. In other words, it’s not a trick question.
With that being said, there are a few things to watch out for:
Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About Your Growth
Mistakes are where growth happens, so don’t worry about discussing a mistake you’ve made.
The caveat here is that you must show something that you’ve learned. Focus on how you have improved as a leader rather than focusing on any ramifications of the mistake you made.
Demonstrating to the interviewer that you’ve learned from errors you’ve made in a leadership role shows them that you are willing to make changes as you go along, which is a good trait for any leader to have.
Don’t Badmouth Previous Managers
While it’s great to talk about an example of good leadership, it’s less effective to talk about what bad leadership looks like.
It is likely that at some point in your life, you have dealt with a poor leader. Your interviewer will not want to hear an explanation of why you did not get along with your last manager.
The interviewer wants to know that you can frame experiences in a positive manner. Even if you didn’t work well with a manager or a staff member, think of something that they learned from the experience or come up with a hypothetical example instead.
- Learn the different ways the question might be asked
- Define “leadership” in your own way
- Illustrate why leadership is important in the industry
- Explain what you mean by providing an example
- Don’t shy away from talking about mistakes
- Don’t focus on negative leadership