21 Tough Interview Questions That Reveal True Leadership Potential

If you investigate the most successful businesses across the world, you'll notice that they ALL have one thing in common; a fantastic, hands-on team of managers and directors leading the way. These businesses know that the secret to success lies directly in the staff they recruit. Learn how you can assess your interviewees on their leadership potential. This blog will show you how to do it.

June 20, 2023

What makes a great leader?

Well, there are some brilliant leadership books out there that are well worth reading that could give you a great insight.

But what do you need to look out for if you're trying to recruit a brilliant leader?

Well, in our experience, after years of recruiting senior level staff for our clients, we've managed to whittle down what we think makes a great leader to just 7 key measurable attributes.

So next time you're hiring, don't ask predictable questions such"tell us about a time when you lead a team successfully...".

You'll learn nothing except whether your candidate has prepared well or not.

Instead, assess candidates on the 7 key leadership attributes we've listed below with the 21 corresponding interview questions.

Use them wisely.

1. Passion.

Most people can lead.  But do they want to lead?

You want to hire someone who's not only capable of leading your team into victory, but who's motivated to do so.

How can you know? 

Have they ever stepped up to the plate before?

Q1. Tell me about a time when something went wrong at work and you took control... Q2. What do you like about managing people? Q3. Have any of your personal experiences helped you to become a good leader?

You're looking for any signs that your interviewing candidate is genuinely passionate about managing other people.

Warning Signs:

  • Candidates who have no evidence of stepping up to the when the going gets tough.
  • Candidates who clearly prefer to take a back seat within the team.
  • Candidates who are openly negative about their colleagues or who show an emotional response to team situations.

Good Signs:

A willingness to take control when the going gets tough is a mark of a great leader.

It shows a passion, bravery and commitment to lead, no matter what is thrown at them.

Are you a job seeker and you've landed on this page looking for advice on the best ways to answer interview questions?  If you are, then watch the video below from our friends at The Interview Academy.

2. Conflict Resolution.

All great leaders will be able to resolve conflicts quickly, fairly and efficiently (that's just common sense!)

Q4. Tell me about the most difficult team you've ever lead...why were they difficult and how did you cope? Q5. Tell me about a time when you didn't agree with something, but had to do it anyway... Q6. When was the last time you had a disagreement with a colleague or customer? What happened?

If there's tension in the office, it will quickly get out of control and affect the culture of your team, impacting employee engagement and productivity.

Warning Signs:

  • Candidates who badmouth their colleagues or managers.
  • Candidates who are revealed to be the cause of the conflict.
  • Candidates who openly go against their managers' wishes.
  • Candidates who lack the confidence to deal with conflict.

Good Signs:

Keep an eye out for candidates who can give multiple examples of when they've quelled awkward situations before they went too far; the peacemakers of the office.

If you yourself could do with some helpful tips on conflict resolution 101 - check out this online fact sheet. 

3. Adaptability.

Managers will have to cope with a variety of tasks and different kinds of people, so great leaders will be able to adapt in the face of unforeseen circumstances.

Q7. Tell me about a time when you had to complete a task you'd never done before...how did you go about it? Were you successful? Q8. Other than the ones described in your job description...what tasks do you fulfill at work? Q9. When was the last time you faced an unexpected setback? What happened?

Leaders have the ability to adapt to different challenges; great leaders relish those challenges.

Warning Signs:

  • Candidates who clearly aren't willing to take on extra responsibilities.
  • Candidates who are stuck in their ways.
  • Candidates who panic in the face of set-backs (they might abandon the task, pass the buck to someone else, blame others for the defeat).

Good Signs:

Great leaders will face setbacks head on and work with whatever resources they have to come up with a solution, learning along the way.

Section TwoAre you an office chameleon?

4. Creativity.

In an ideal world, all of your staff will be brimming with creativity, inspiration and innovation.

Creative leaders will bring things to the table that you may have overlooked and will be able to inspire their team to do the same!

Q10. Tell me about a time when you had to think outside the box to complete a task...were you successful? Q11. How do you come up with ideas? Q12. When was the last time a staff member approached you with a unique idea? What did you do?

Of course, it's also very important that a leader recognise great ideas when they're brought to the table and get behind them 100%!

Warning Signs:

  • Candidates who rush into trying out new ideas on a whim, without thinking them through (there needs to be some sort of decision making process)!
  • Candidates who squash or take credit for other employees' ideas.
  • Candidates who can't describe any examples of their creativity.

Good Signs:

Look out for candidates who are eager to try out new things, but exhibit a clear decision-making process (see below) and don't rush into things.

Recruiter Pro Tip. You could practically assess a candidate's creativity in an interview by asking some brainteasers or trickier left-field questions. Creative leaders will be able to think on their feet and answer sensibly. Beware though - these types of questions tend to put some interviewees off (especially the more nervous ones).

5. Negotiation.

A good leader simply MUST be a good negotiator;  chances are, most of their job will be persuasion of some kind (whether aimed at staff, clients or suppliers)!

Q13. As a leader, how would you persuade people to do what you want? Q14. How do you deal with people who disagree with you? Q15. What is the most important attribute of a negotiator?

Good leaders can negotiate without causing conflict or upsetting anyone and they certainly won't resort to threats or intimidation.

Warning Signs:

  • Candidates who intimidate or threaten others rather than attempting to negotiate.
  • Candidates who clearly give in too easily (if they don't have one story exhibiting their negotiation skills).
  • Candidates who think they don't need to negotiate because they're always right (they'll just go ahead and do what they want).

Good Signs:

Good negotiators can show... fairness, empathy, critical reasoning and confidence.

A successful negotiator will be able to assess their opponent's point of view and use it to convince them that their idea will benefit everyone involved.

They'll keep everyone happy!

6. Decision Making.

Great leaders have the innate ability to make a rational decision and stick by it.

Q16. Describe your decision-making process to me... Q17. What's the most difficult decision you've had to make recently and how did you come to that decision? Q18. Are you a risk taker?

Everyone makes mistakes; you're not going to find a perfect candidate. However, what you need to look out for is a strong, structured decision-making process.

Warning Signs:

  • Candidates who take too many risks.
  • Candidates who can't explain their decision-making process.
  • Candidates who take no risks whatsoever (if no one took risks, nothing would ever get done).

Some risk is inevitable, but you really don't want to hire someone who does what they want, when they want to, without considering the consequences!

Good Signs:

Look out for interviewing candidates who are level headed and commercially minded.

They'll understand the consequences of certain actions and they'll have their own unique way of making a decision (taking everything into consideration).

7. People Management.

Of course this is a biggie!  A great leader will be able to supervise and manage other employees confidently and effectively.

Q19. How would you track the performance of your employees? Q20. Tell me about the last person you sacked... Q21. How have you encouraged the development of your staff members in the past?

A great leader will inspire and motivate their good staff members to develop and grow but they'll also know how to deal with the trouble-makers and under-performers.

Leading is no bed of roses.

Warning Signs:

  • Candidates who are too quick to judge and discipline struggling staff members (without asking questions).
  • Candidates who seem naïve to the negative responsibilities of managing people, like disciplining, sacking and redundancies etc...
  • Candidates who are unsure (or against) the training and development of other staff members.

Good Signs:

You're looking out for candidates who exhibit experience and passion for developing other employees; they'll understand that training others is a really important part of building a close-knit and super-successful team.

On the other hand, a good leader will also know when it's time to get tough.

Use Your Gut Instincts!

The 21 questions we've revealed above will go a long way to helping you find a strong leader for your business.

As always, we recommend using a variety of different interview questions to assess your candidates (even if your main desire is to find a leader) - don't just use all of the 21 above.

If you use every single question you risk making your interview sound a bit stilted and wooden, and it needs to be more rounded and natural sounding.

Try if possible to use a selection of the most appropriate questions.

If you need more inspiration about what makes a great leader, make sure you check out these books on Amazon.

We've already posted blogs revealing some behavioural, personality, left-field and brainteaser questions for you to use as you feel free (click on the links to see each respective post) and if you'd like to receive a weekly update, you can always sign up to this blog!

Recruiter Pro Tip. There are, of course, other leadership attributes that cannot be revealed by mere questioning. To assess these intangibles, you'll have to use your gut instincts and keen eye for body language. You should ask yourself questions like...
  • Is this candidate likable?
  • Are they confident enough to lead other people?
  • Will they fit in with my team?
  • Do they seem arrogant?
  • Are they going to cause friction?
People are a lot more likely to follow and be inspired by leaders that they actually like and trust!

Always let your conscience be your guide!

Good luck!

Coburg Banks Sales Recruitment Agency
We help great people get brilliant jobs in top companies.

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