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I remember trying out for choir in college where I had to go through an interviewing process. The director asked me questions like "How did you form, lead, and manage a singing group?" as if I was supposed have done that.

I applied for a sales position at an office supply chain and I was asked about my experiences about having supervised anything and resolving conflict between subordinates.

Same thing for entry-level developer positions: I was asked about how I managed to influence management decisions and how I encourage co-workers to achieve higher performance levels.

The only thing I can think of is that once hired, there might be a freak occurrence when a supervisor suddenly leaves for whatever reason and they want somebody even of the lowest position to be able to step up.

Why do interviewers ask about leadership experiences for any position?

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Only thing I can think of is they want to know how you would lead, in case they decide to promote you in the future to a leadership position. – New-To-IT Jan 12 at 15:48
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Ever consider that they want someone that can run things successfully which can mean informally leading others as well as themselves? – JB King Jan 12 at 15:58
    
Yes. I learned too late. Now, I advise and encourage any kid who wants to pursue anything to think about and "get their feet wet" in any leadership experience. – Mickael Caruso Jan 12 at 16:00
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Possible duplicate of How to answer critical non technical questions in an interview – gnat Jan 12 at 16:09
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The reason I ask because as written, all of these questions are awkward(they assume you've done something that you presumably have not mentioned doing), but with only slight changes they would be reasonable in interviews. Eg "Have you supervised anything?" "Give an example of how you resolved a conflict [with a coworker]?" are pretty standard interview questions. – Ryan Jan 12 at 19:59
up vote 74 down vote accepted

Why do interviewers ask leadership questions even for “follower” positions?

Because they suck at interviewing. You can dress it up as much as you want but the specific instances you describe are typical of novice interviewers who are just going through the motions or following a script.

Now, that's not to say that it can't be useful to poll for this kind of experience in a candidate and how they dealt with leadership roles. But those questions are different from what you're describing: those are questions you'd ask when recruiting a manager for the team you're applying to.

Good management questions for non-management roles ask about your activity and role in school projects, internships, volunteer work, mentoring roles, project lead experience and so on. They are good for figuring out how you handle following direction, how you resolve conflicts and what your idea of management is. They also poll for any experience you may have had in directing others' work, even if you don't have manager among the titles on your resume. Think of it as the "working well with others" section of the report card.

For more senior positions, these questions can be valid because they're polling you on your medium-term to long-term goals and ambition. They could be looking for someone with a few years' experience who will transition into a leadership role or who will be groomed to replace the current team manager. If you notice this during the interview, it's fine to ask whether the position will (eventually) include a management component, but note that they could just be considering vague plans so don't see it as "they'll definitely promote me to a manager in X years". I don't get the idea that you're at that point in your career when you were asked these questions though, which is why you were probably just dealing with bad interviewers.

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The one that makes some sense to me is the junior developer who's asked "how I managed to influence management decisions and how I encourage co-workers to achieve higher performance levels". If you want a reasonably collegial atmosphere then "influence" and "encourage" are things that everyone can usefully do. But you wouldn't demand any more than a modest ability to make your points and cheer your colleagues along: the questioner doesn't expect you to provide evidence that your previous CEO hung on your every word. – Steve Jessop Jan 12 at 20:03
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@SteveJessop The idea behind that question definitely has merit but the language used is completely off-base for an entry-level interview. A junior employee isn't going to be managing anything and he certainly shouldn't be trying to manage up. Some candidates could have great stories there ("I introduced [Technology] to my team during an internship which lead to [Positive Outcome]") but I imagine a lot of inexperienced candidates fumbling it. – Lilienthal Jan 12 at 20:48
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It is surprising to me how many people give interviews as if their only training was watching movies in which people are interviewed. I know someone who was interviewing for a position as a bartender for an event that occurs only one month out of the year; the first question given by the interviewer was "where do you see yourself in five years?" How is the answer to that possibly relevant to the job of being a bartender at an event that lasts less than a month? The rest of the questions were similarly nonsensical. – Eric Lippert Jan 13 at 1:37
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@EricLippert Keep in mind that many people are expected to conduct interviews without receiving training of any kind. It's silly and a terrible practice but it explains the majority of bad interviewers. I'd put the rest down to shady training agencies who only spread bad interview tactics and decades-old advice. – Lilienthal Jan 13 at 18:46
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@EricLippert The reason why people ask the "5 years" question is because they are cribbing from the Big Book of Interview Questions, little realizing that every candidate has already read the Big Book of Answers to Interview Questions. The end result is everyone participates in yet another tedious round of meaningless questions and prepackaged answers. – BryanH Jan 14 at 20:42

Managers and leaders are not the same thing, perhaps you are confusing them.

All groups have natural leaders - regardless of the formal command chain - regardless of the person with the title "manager".

Leaders have the ability to get people to do things without having to pull out an "authority" card.

People that have good leadership skills are valuable in a team environment because they help motivate the group and move it forward without needing a babysitter (aka "manager"). They also give energy and motivation to a group.

Thus, in a team environment, people who are good leaders are valuable additions to the team. People that ask these questions are probably team-oriented and are looking to build a good team.

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A team full of leaders isn't necessarily a productive one... – nekomatic Jan 13 at 11:33
    
Teams should be balanced, but that's a completely different topic. – Matt McCabe Jan 13 at 11:56
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@nekomatic - you are correct, which is why I said good leadership skills. A good leader can work with other leaders. And, I've worked on teams where we all had good leadership skills and those teams rocked. But, just to be clear, I did not mean to suggest that the entire team should be leaders, just that it was a desirable trait to look for in candidates. – Prinz Jan 13 at 13:15
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@nekomatic: I think again you are mixing leaders with managers. Leaders lead, not tell others what to do. In a team full of leaders, there would still be one or two alpha characters that the others will end up looking up to for advice. Good leaders by default listen to advice from others. – slebetman Jan 14 at 4:20
    
Mind replacing "natural ability" with "ability"? I don't really agree that someone who learns leadership skills doesn't count as a leader. – djechlin Jan 14 at 23:27

Usually, especially in big firms, HR is trying to see the candidate beyond the current post. If they feel you are a good follower, but will never be a leader, they may estimate that you have no future in their firm, and prefer a candidate that is less suited for the job to come, but who has potential to be a great leader in the years to come.

I don't agree with that way of thinking, but it's the rationale. I've seen overperformers, acknowledged as such, being pushed to the exit because they were "too shy", and therefore could not, never ever, be a proper manager.

So, if you're asked about being a leader, there is not much to do. If you are too shy as my unfortunate colleague, you can't fake being a leader all of a sudden.

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And you could wind up with someone with true leadership potential who is just never ever going to be suited to doing the grunt work of the lower level position. Companies need people to just do the work sometimes, and just because you are suited for something "higher" doesn't mean you can do the so-called "lower" tasks. – Amy Blankenship Jan 12 at 16:26
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Something else to take into consideration is the employee turnover for the company. Some companies realize people leave after a few large projects. Anecdotally at my current company 2 people have cycled out from the "top" after their projects were done to do something different and were replaced with lower employees. – Sirisian Jan 12 at 18:49

Your particular questions are pretty poor examples, and probably more a reflection of bad interviewers than anything else.

In general people want employees who show the ability to take responsibility for things. Many job responsibilities benefit from someone doing this.

That might be something small. It might be something large. But somehow showing that you took ownership and responsibility for something is meaningful.


You also might consider that influencing others is actually a critical part of many jobs. Not very many junior developers are placed in a room, told to never interact with others, and fed trivial tasks through email.

Being able to navigate situations with others is important. Being able to actually positively influence others is really beneficial. That evil "politics" thing that technical people like to pretend doesn't exist/hate/complain about is what makes projects happen in organizations. Oftentimes persuading/influencing others is more difficult than the actual work itself....

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While this is less likely than the interviewer just not knowing what he's doing (as other answers suggest), or even @Prinz's answer, the question could be included as an indirect way of asking,
"How do you like to be managed and what expectations do you have for your management?"

Some people, when asked that question, don't know how to respond because they don't know various styles of management.

But, everyone can imagine how they would act within a specific situation. By putting them in the position of manager, they would explain how they would manage, which would most likely point to what they think is important in being a manager and indirectly, cover how they would like to be managed.

Again, I highly doubt this is the case most of the time, at least on purpose (since I easily imagine the question being insightful, even if the interviewer doesn't think exactly on why), If they realized what they really wanted to ask they can just ask the bolded question and ask the second question if that doesn't work out.. but it's a possibility.

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There are ways to lead that have nothing to do with your title, and if you know how to use those skills, you'll be much more productive. Most of follower positions still require you to interface with with other people and leadership skills make this so much easier.

Are you preparing project plans proactively? Are you issuing regular status updates to stakeholders? Are you offering to help people where you know there's benefit to be gained to the company? Are you asking the right questions at the right time to the right people? You don't need an office and a title to do these things, everyone can do them, and the best employees do.

Now you've also been specifically asked about things like "supervising" and "subordinates" - these are not leadership qualities. These are managerial tasks. Don't confuse the two! A leader can help resolve conflicts between any two people, but only a manager should be "resolving conflicts between subordinates", and the manager has the authority to order a resolution (which one might argue is a piss-poor way to resolve a conflict). A leader on the other hand can't order anyone to do anything, instead relying on persuasion to resolve the conflict. (That being said, a great manager will use leadership skills instead of managerial authority whenever possible!)

Now why would they ask these types of questions? Well, the first type has a couple reasons. Most obvious, they want to know you'll be capable of taking care of yourself and that you'll be able to take down roadblocks when necessary. Also generally, people with those skills take control of their own destiny, and they take extra care to be prepared and in general are just more productive employees.

The specific managerial questions are a bit odd, but it's nice to know if you have them. Experience in a managerial role gives you a different perspective on being an employee (one that is usually a net positive for the company).

Bottom line, you don't have to be a manager to be a leader, and experience in either manager or leader roles are likely to make you more productive at any level of employment.

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Some teams are either designed or aspire to be self-managing. There are aspects of every project that someone other than the "manager" needs to take some control over. It's always good to have team members who can step up and lead one day.

There may be some insight on how you'll follow based on how you lead. When given some authority, you really learn how well people can get along with others.

In the modern workplace, individuals are expected to have some level of self-management. There will be times when a new person gets hired and you may need to train them. You're going to need some leadership skills, but not in the sense of being a true boss.

There are fewer and fewer positions available for people who just want to be told what to do all the time.

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