Answering the 'what makes a good leader?' interview question

Updated 20 March 2023

Effective leaders typically possess skills that make it easier to maintain unity within workplace teams, such as conflict resolution, positive verbal communication and active listening. If you're applying for leadership roles, use interviews to explain why you're well-qualified to oversee business finances and junior colleagues' duties. Read this guide to discover how to prepare strong answers to 'what makes a good leader?'. In this article, we explain why hiring managers ask the 'what makes a good leader?' interview question, provide a step-by-step guide to answering this question and list three sample answers.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Why do hiring managers ask questions about leadership?

Hiring managers ask leadership questions to learn about the values, ideas and principles that you believe leaders usually possess. They might use your response to learn about your personality and find out whether your leadership philosophy suits their organisation's corporate culture. Hiring managers can also use the question to find out how you might hold yourself and other colleagues accountable for the quality of work carried out.

Hiring managers may expect your answer to include the following information:

  • Attitudes to leadership: List at least three attributes you believe good leaders possess, such as self-confidence, communication or integrity. Explain how leaders demonstrate these skills at work.

  • Leadership models: Explain how you may maintain a unified and collaborative work environment. You can also cite useful leadership models and explain how they encourage teamwork.

  • Contextual examples: Relate your attitude to leadership to the position for which you're applying. For example, if you're applying for nursing management jobs, leadership may involve motivating nurses to deliver high-quality care.

Related: Leadership models: what are they and how do they differ?

Answering the 'What makes a good leader?' interview question

The next section provides a step-by-step guide on how to answer the 'what makes a good leader?' interview question:

1. Research the hiring organisation's culture

The first step you can take to giving a good answer is to research the hiring organisation's corporate culture. Researching its culture can give you insights into the company's professional values, work practices and worldview. Then tailor your response to convince hiring managers that your management style aligns with their organisation's attitudes to managing customers and employees.

One useful research option is visiting the organisation's website and navigating to the webpage that contains its mission statement. Identify keywords and place them within your reply. For example, if you're interviewing for a software development leadership role, the hiring organisation's mission statement may prioritise 'using innovative products to improve customers' lives.' Link this point to your work experience to show hiring managers that you could adjust to their organisation's internal culture.

Read more: Complete guide: how to research a company for an interview

2. List your main leadership skills

The next step that you can take is to list your strongest leadership skills. Examples of leadership skills include trustworthiness, risk management, enthusiasm, fairness and positive communication. Rank your skills based on their relevance to your present career. For example, if you work as an investment banker, trustworthiness and risk management rank highly as they show that you're capable of managing customer funds wisely and acting in their best interests.

Read more: 9 leadership skills to develop

3. Respond to professional challenges

You may also explain how you could use leadership skills to respond to common professional challenges that affect your industry. This approach shows hiring managers that you might resolve crises under time pressure so that the organisation can make continued progress towards its operational goals.

For example, if you work in wedding planning, you may respond to a power outage at the reception venue. In this situation, you might use positive verbal communication skills to reassure guests while using organisation skills to find an electrician at short notice. If you have prior managerial experience in your current profession, you could also discuss a previous instance of when you used leadership skills to resolve crises.

Read more: How to provide leadership in crisis (plus tips and advice)

4. Define success

The final step that you can take to construct a good answer to this question is to define success. Relate your personal ambitions to the hiring organisation's values and explain how you could achieve personal growth by helping the firm to meet its own goals. For example, as a hotel manager, you may define success as acquiring new customer service skills and maintaining good customer satisfaction rates.

Related: Interview question: 'how do you define success?'

Sample answers

Here are three sample answers to 'what makes a good leader?', with each answer written to reflect a specific context:

Answer for nursing leadership roles

In nursing, leaders encourage multidisciplinary collaboration and train junior nurses to ensure that their trust or hospital delivers positive outcomes in patient care. Nursing leaders also help organisations to achieve care targets and build positive cultures of care. Examples of nursing leadership jobs include ward manager, sister, unit manager and clinical nursing manager. Respond to the question in senior nursing interviews by outlining the skills and values that successful nursing leaders require. Discuss nursing leadership styles you might adopt and explain how they enable teamwork.

Example answer: 'In hospital nursing, I believe that good leaders require leadership skills that ensure that nursing teams deliver positive outcomes for patients; useful skills include empathy, team management, critical thinking and positive communication. St. Thomas' Hospital's mission statement embodies this outlook**, claiming to 'ensure high-quality care by inspiring nurses to advocate for patients' interests and achieve personal growth'. I can practise these skills by implementing a transformational leadership philosophy; this approach inspires junior nurses to imagine unique ways to meet their responsibilities to patients.

I may also use nursing leadership skills to overcome workplace challenges and meet treatment delivery targets. For example, though I may plan to meet 80% of new patients within two hours of their arrival at the hospital, I could find it challenging to do so if disruptive patients become a distraction. To overcome this problem, I might initially allow the nurse treating a patient to resolve conflicts, empowering them to gain critical thinking skills. If the patient remains confrontational, I may direct them to a 'quiet area' to protect other patients and learn of the dispute's cause.'

Related: 11 leadership styles in nursing (with definitions)

Answer for finance leadership roles

Leaders require a combination of soft and technical skills to succeed in the financial services industry. Helpful soft skills include communication, critical thinking and adaptability. You can use these skills to build trust with clients and create long-term investment strategies that protect clients' interests as market conditions change. Finance leaders also require in-depth knowledge of their specialist fields, such as corporate bond markets or business development. Answer this question by detailing your soft and technical skills before explaining how you can encourage collaboration within large banks or businesses.

Example answer: 'I believe that finance leaders require empathy, organisational and communication skills so that they can create investment plans that deliver good returns that also take clients' risk appetites into account. While working as a senior financial advisor, I may use positive communication to encourage clients to trust this firm to manage their investments. I can also use organisation and empathy skills to write tailored plans that account for clients' financial goals plus develop training schemes that incorporate junior colleagues' feedback to improve overall performance.

Given LDH Holdings' promise to 'train advisors to invest capital responsibly and sustainably so that clients can meet their financial goals'**, I feel I can practise such leadership skills at this organisation. For example, if a new client is unsure whether to purchase an investment product, I may explain the products' incentives and risks to help them make an informed choice. I also define personal 'success' as a senior financial advisor as effectively balancing these commitments to build trust with clients with my responsibility to secure new revenue streams.'

Related: 14 of the best-paid jobs in finance

Answer for teaching leadership roles

All teaching staff require leadership skills regardless of their place within the school's hierarchy. Teachers and teaching assistants use leadership to create safe learning environments, build positive relationships with pupils and maintain order in classrooms. Similarly, headteachers use leadership to support teaching and learning and create strategies that improve students' average grades and attendance rates. If hiring managers ask the question in a teaching interview, list a few leadership skills teachers require and relate them to the role's responsibilities.

Example answer: 'Like many teaching organisations, St. Aloysius' Primary School values 'encouraging students to express themselves within a safe learning environment'. To meet my ethical duties**, I require varied leadership skills, including empathy, adaptability and motivation. I may use such skills to write lesson plans that accommodate each pupil's unique learning needs and safeguard them from physical or emotional harm. As a primary school teacher, I define success as helping students to become more confident and develop cognitive learning skills required to fulfil their long-term academic potential.'

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