Every team needs a leader. Be it a family, a group of friends, a sports team, or a department in a big corporation. Someone always leads and others follow, though it may not always be obvious to the people who are led, or to an eye of an outside observer. You may get a question about leadership in any job interview. Because in every single job you will either lead someone, or someone will lead you. Formally or informally, liberally or with an iron fist, with love or with hate. The relationship of the leader and the follower is always present in the workplace.

They may ask you a few questions about leadership. “Are you a leader or a follower?”, “Tell us about a time when you demonstrated leadership”, “Describe the best leader you’ve ever had.” And we analyze all these questions on the pages of InterviewPenguin.com. In this post, however, we will look at perhaps the toughest leadership question of all: What does leadership mean to you?

Let’s start directly with seven sample answers to the question. I tried to include on my list answers fitting for different corporate roles and interviews. Answers for people who will lead, and people who will be led. I also added a couple of unconventional answers to the list, just to give you a better selection. Once you get through the answers (and hopefully find one you modify slightly and use in your interview), do not forget to read also my notes below, for additional hints and explanations.


7 sample answers to “What does leadership mean to you?” interview question

  1. For me personally, it means empowering people. Helping them to grow under my leadership, and realize their full potential in the workplace. The best leaders help their people discover qualities and strengths they were not even aware of before. They help them overcome prejudice and any self-imposed limitations. Leaders simply help their team members become the best versions of themselves. That’s what leadership means to me.
  2. In my eyes, leadership is the most important quality of every employee. Because we have many levels of leadership. Even when you do not manage or lead anyone else in the job, you have to be the leader of your own working day. You need to prioritize your tasks, find inner motivation to try hard day after day, organize your day in a meaningful way, and work on your personal growth. Though most people do not realize it, everyone has to be a leader, at least if they want to progress in life, and do something good for the others. Of course, once you are responsible for a team, a department, or for an entire company, it’s yet another level of leadership and requires additional layer of skills. Still, in both cases, it is the most important quality of an employee.
  3. More than anything else, it is something I haven’t experienced in my two previous jobs. I was a new force in the company, I did not know anyone, and I was new in the field. More than anything else I was looking for a mentor, someone who would guide me and help understand the cash-flow. Someone who would help me grow and become a valuable member of the FP&A team. But it did not happen. I do not know if they were afraid of me, of my intelligence. Perhaps they worried that I could eventually replace them in their managerial roles. One way or another, they’ve never really let me in, and it is one of the reasons why I left the company and am here with you in this interview today.
  4. In my opinion, leadership means going by example. I cannot expect my subordinates to stay an hour overtime at work, and to spend just 45 minutes at lunch, if I leave every day at 4pm, and spent 90 minutes each day eating in a fancy restaurant. That’s not going to inspire anyone. All words are empty, if we do not follow up on them with action. I do not want to be a leader–talker. Someone with a full mouth of big words in daily meetings, expecting a lot from others, but doing a little on my own. That’s not my style of leadership. On the contrary, I want to be the one who goes an extra mile for the company, and I hope to inspire my subordinates to do the same. Of course, they have to understand the benefits–the relation of their personal goals and the goals we try to achieve as a business. As a good leader, however, you should not struggle to explain it to your people.
  5. What does leadership mean to me? It means a lot of things: Responsibility, commitment, empathy, communication, positive attitude. This is my first job application, so I have not had a chance yet to be a leader in a corporation, or to experience a leadership of a manager. But I believe to understand quite well what the concept entails, and I definitely want to promote the right values in my team. Regardless of my position in the team–even if I am the lowest ranked employee, I want to be a leader. Not necessarily a leader of decisions, or a leader of innovation, but leader of values, someone who brings responsibility, empathy, and positive attitude to the team.
  6. In my opinion, real leadership is something we are missing in this country. And I do not speak only about politics. When you look at the corporate world, how irresponsibly it acts towards the nature, how it ignores the global warming, and at the fact that two thirds of employees are mentally drained or at least unsatisfied with their jobs, it is obvious that something has gone terribly wrong in the recent years. More often than not, fish stinks from the head. If an organization (of any kind, private or public) experience a high employee turnover, and if the people go to work only because they have to, there is definitely something wrong with leadership of that organization. And it is something I witness a lot in talks with my friends, the employees of various corporations. But I do not want to sound negative. I do not see this as an irreversible trend. I hope to be the leader of a positive change, regardless of my position in the team, or in the company. Empowering people and helping them find a meaningful purpose in their jobs, I can definitely change something to better. Perhaps not in the world or even in the entire company, but certainly in my team, in the lives of people I share the workplace with. It is highly motivating to me.
  7. Speaking honestly, it is just another empty buzzword to me. Diversity, ambiguity, equal opportunity, leadership–we hear them way too often in the interviews. But what do they mean in the real corporate landscape? Only naive people believe that something like equality exists, or can ever exist in the world. And diversity? Sure enough, everyone embraces it in the interviews, but when it comes to real work, we prefer to have colleagues who share the same values and religious beliefs. And leadership? Corporate managers talk a lot about it. Once you have a job, however, you quickly realize that the big corp has a process in place for absolutely everything. There’s a line you have to follow in everything you do. No room to bring new ideas onboard, or perhaps challenge the status quo. Sure, you can lead by example, spending twelve hours a day at work. But is it eventually good for anyone? I doubt it. For me, all these corporate values and buzzwords, including leadership, are just smoke and mirror. But I would love to work for a corporation that can convince me of the opposite. Can it be your corporation?


You can always be the leader–one they are looking for in every interview

Let’s face it. Regardless of whether the concept of leadership is a real thing, or just a fad in your future place of work, companies want to hire leaders. And it doesn’t matter if you apply for a job of an office assistant, supervisor, or manager of an entire marketing department. Because leadership has many forms. Even when you do not lead anyone formally, you can be an informal leader within your group, team, squad, department.

Ensure them that you aspire to become one. You can talk about going by example, bringing positive attitude onboard, empowering people, or simply effectively managing and leading each day at work, getting done as much as possible. That’s the attitude they are looking for in the very best job applicants.

* Special Tip: This isn’t the most difficult question you will face while interviewing for any leadership or managerial role. You will face questions about prioritization, dealing with pressure, solving problems, and other tricky scenarios that happen in the workplace. If you want to make sure that you stand out with your answers and outclass your competitors, have a look at our Interview Success Package. Up to 10 premium answers to 50 tricky scenario based questions (+ more) will make your life much easier in the interviews. Thank you for checking it out!

Do not be afraid of an unconventional answer–it can easily win you the job

Life’s not black and white, but interviews sometimes are black and white. I’ve led enough interviews back in the day to tell. Most candidates giving the same answers, coming perfectly prepared, saying what is expected from a typical mainstream corporate employee.

And while this technique isn’t bad, and it can win you the job in many cases, it won’t do you any good in competitive interviews and situations. If you compete with twenty or hundred other people for some really good job–let’s say a leadership position with a six figure annual salary, you have to stand out with something. Not all interview questions offer you an opportunity to stand out, to make the hiring managers think, to make sure they will remember you long after the end of the interviews. But this question offers you such an opportunity.

You can talk about a failure of leadership in your country. Or even say that fish stinks from the head. And if you are brave enough, or have nothing to lose in the interview, you can even say that leadership is just another corporate buzzword, and has nothing to do with the reality in the workplace.

Such answers are risky. But they can stir an interesting discussion in an interview, and they will almost always help you stand out from the crowd. In certain competitive scenarios, they are your best bet…

Ready to answer this one? I hope so! Do not forget to check also 7 sample answers to other tricky interview questions:

Matthew Chulaw
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