“What does leadership mean to you?” is an interview question that makes many applicants stumble. It can feel like a trick question, especially if you’re not even applying for a leadership position!
This guide will teach you how to answer this question effectively and make a great impression.
Table of contents
The Reason Interviewers Ask This Question
Questions about your leadership are common during job interviewers, and it doesn’t only come up for managerial positions. And interestingly enough, “What does leadership mean to you?” might get asked even if the position you’re interviewing for doesn’t require you to lead.
So why do interviewers ask it?
Ultimately, this question is a gateway for you to highlight your personal values. Hiring managers want to learn as much about you as possible to assess how you’d fit into the organization. They want to know what you have to bring to the table and gain insight into the type of employee you’d be.
This question matters because it gives you the opportunity to talk about what you value in a leader. Everyone has experience dealing with leadership in one form or another. If you’re not the leader (in terms of your work position), you answer to someone who is.
Explaining what leadership means to you can say a lot about how you interact with those above you in the corporate hierarchy. Discussing what values matter most to you as a leader gives hiring managers a better idea of what form of leadership you respond to and whether or not that fits the organization.
Your answer may also put your skills and confidence in the spotlight. Companies love to hire people who can collaborate as part of a team and work with leaders to accomplish objectives. But they also want individuals who can shine on their own and succeed without a leader holding their hand.
A good response can speak volumes about how you approach your work, possibly showing good potential for the future.
Of course, “What does leadership mean to you?” will also get asked if you’re interviewing for a manager or supervisor position. In that case, the question can help interviewers get a glimpse of what leadership styles you’ll bring to the table and why you think they are effective.
How to Answer “What Does Leadership Mean to You?”
This is a complex question with many layers. It’s not as cut-and-dry as others you might hear in a job interview. And because of this, it deserves a great deal of thought.
Failing to deliver a solid answer could make hiring managers second-guess your abilities to succeed in the role. On the other hand, providing a thoughtful response can move you closer to the top of the consideration list. Here are a few tips that can make all the difference.
1. Reflect on Past Leaders, Good and Bad
The best approach is to draw on your personal experience. You might not have thought much about how your former managers and leaders performed, but now is your chance to reflect on the past.
Answering “What does leadership mean to you?” effectively requires you to develop your own philosophy on how people should lead. Start by thinking of the leaders who positively impacted your life. It doesn’t have to be a work manager. Personal leaders like teachers, mentors, and even prominent figures all apply.
What traits did those individuals possess? What was it about their approach that resonated with you most? Figure those things out and reflect on real-world examples illustrating those traits in action.
Once you do that, you can focus on the lackluster leaders you’ve encountered. Maybe you had a manager who treated you and your colleagues poorly. Or perhaps you had a teacher who didn’t do much to ensure that you understood the material they presented.
Again, figure out what traits they possessed and why they didn’t work for you. Then, ponder what you would have done differently.
After understanding what traits you like and don’t like in a leader, you can compare the two sides of the spectrum to nail down your leadership philosophy.
2. Read Up on Leadership Styles and Qualities
In addition to pulling from real experience, consider reading up on leadership and common techniques employed by working professionals. You don’t have to dive too deep into research, but it pays to familiarize yourself with certain terms.
For example, you should know how to define traits like decisiveness or good communication in the context of leadership. Understanding how that fits into a manager’s duties is also helpful.
3. Think Outside the Box
When giving your response, be bold and give the interviewer a little food for thought. This is one of those questions where providing a standout answer can benefit you. Interviewers hear tons of different responses to open-ended queries like this.
Saying something the interviewer has never heard before is a great way to stick out in their mind. Leading by example, being a strong communicator, and looking out for their team are all answers they hear regularly. And while those are definitely solid traits to look for in a leader, you should aim to go beyond the standard responses.
For example, you might say that leadership is when someone takes accountability and digs in with their team to get the job done when something goes wrong. Or perhaps you believe leadership means celebrating wins with the whole team when they find success because that helps the company culture and also results in lower staff turnover.
Don’t make something up just for the sake of being different, but do a little extra brainstorming to find an angle with your answer that might not be a little less common.
4. Practice Your Response
Our final tip is to practice as much as you can.
Avoid having an over-rehearsed answer. You don’t want to recite anything verbatim because it can come off as inauthentic. Instead, try to have key points you want to hit.
Practice saying them in several ways so that you truly understand the points you’re trying to get across. Aim to have the response locked and loaded so you can deliver it confidently.
What Should You Avoid Including in Your Answer?
Let’s talk about some common mistakes that applicants make when answering “What does leadership mean to you?” While a unique answer can work in your favor, making one of the following missteps can hurt your chances of getting a job offer. Avoid them at all costs!
Avoid Incoherent Answers
Unfortunately, this question catches many job-seekers by surprise. When you have to come up with a response on the fly, it’s easy to get your thoughts mixed up and say something that doesn’t make sense.
Avoid this by preparing early. Only your interviewer knows what they will ask, but you can sidestep those awkward responses by coming up with rough answers to as many interview questions as possible. This isn’t a response you want to think up on the fly, so give it thought and have a strong reply ready.
Steer Clear of Extreme Attitudes
You may not like having a leader breathe down your neck, but you should avoid implying you would prefer not to have a leader at all. That’s not realistic. Every job has a hierarchy of positions. It doesn’t matter what you do, there will likely be someone above you.
Having an anti-authority mentality isn’t a good look either. It could make the interviewer think that you’re not a team player and might be a problem later on.
Finally, don’t deliver an answer that’s too long. Aim for two minutes or less.
Open-ended questions like “What does being a leader mean to you?” can invite wordy responses. Once again, practicing your answer will help you avoid this. Know what you’re going to say, and keep it concise.
There are many ways to answer this question, and ultimately what matters most is how you deliver your answer and what values you mention. Here are a few examples to inspire you.
In the first sample answer, the candidate provides a simple statement. But despite its simplicity, it shows strong values and a willingness to pull their weight as part of a team. It’s a solid answer because it provides food for thought while reassuring the interviewer that this individual has much to offer the company.
“To me, leadership is about inspiring others and leading by example to reach a common goal. A good leader is someone who encourages and enables people to reach their full potential while providing support every step of the way.
It’s about understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses while learning to identify the capabilities of others. To accomplish goals, those in charge need to leverage strengths to overcome team challenges. In my opinion, leadership requires you to understand that a group is more than a sum of individual parts.
While individual strengths matter, it’s how people put those strengths to use as part of a collective that makes a difference.”
Our second example offers a more critical approach. While it’s not accusatory or negative, the answer is passionately delivered. The candidate knows what type of leader they want, and they’re not afraid to say it.
“Leadership is about leading by example. I strongly believe that leaders must join their teams on the ground floor to inspire others. If you want people to go above and beyond, you have to do the same. I wouldn’t expect people I supervise to double down and do overtime if I couldn’t join them.
Leaders are responsible for motivating and uplifting, but words can only do so much. They have to show that they’re working just as hard. While supervisors usually have different duties, a good leader will put in as much effort as their subordinates to ensure success across the board.”
Our final answer has a bit more depth. The interviewee describes past work experiences to illustrate why they have the values they do. Their response is well thought-out and concise, but it’s memorable enough to stand out.
“Leadership means several different things to me.
One of the most important traits of leadership is inspiring others. One of the most effective managers I’ve ever had had a knack for uplifting the team and supporting us when needed. It helped us maintain a high level of productivity, and I believe he was the recipe for our success.
Secondly, leadership means putting people in the right place at the right time. Great leaders will recognize someone’s strengths and help them use those skills to benefit the company. I once had a supervisor who identified my aptitude for customer service.
So, they reprioritized my duties to focus entirely on answering support calls. I was able to find my groove. Not only was I happier, but we experienced better call satisfaction rates.
Finally, leadership means trust and respect. The street goes both ways. Leaders need to trust every individual on the team. Otherwise, those people can’t be productive members of the group or gain enough respect for leaders to trust their judgment.”
Being able to talk about what leadership means to you will help you craft a fantastic answer to this question and improve your chance of getting hired.
But that’s not all.
Going through this thought exercise will allow you to better identify good leadership and bad leadership during your career. This will help you find opportunities that are a good fit, and be a better leader yourself!
Hannah Morgan speaks and writes about job search and career strategies. She founded CareerSherpa.net to educate professionals on how to maneuver through today’s job search process. Hannah was nominated as a LinkedIn Top Voice in Job Search and Careers and is a regular contributor to US News & World Report. She has been quoted by media outlets, including Forbes, USA Today, Money Magazine, Huffington Post, as well as many other publications. She is also author of The Infographic Resume and co-author of Social Networking for Business Success.