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I am a software engineer and recently I was asked in an interview the question "Tell me about a situation that you showed a leadership". I was totally unprepared for that and even now I have no idea to answer it.

I have never worked as a leader, I was either the main developer or worked in bigger projects where peer interaction was non-existent. I have showed initiative many times but it was more of doing it without telling others, or others figuring it out late. What is that makes a past experience a leadership experience?

Would any of the below be valid?

  • Explaining a situation where I mentored others.
  • Explaining a situation where I took initiative without telling anyone.
  • Explaining a situation where I came up with a solution that we all implemented together in the group.
  • Explaining a situation where I gave direction to a project between me and an other programmer.
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    "Explaining a situation where I took initiative without telling anyone." Without context this one might actually be a bad thing. Communication is important in a company. People doing something without communicating is a rather bad thing even done with good intentions. – Jeroen Mar 31 '17 at 11:18
  • @Jeroen Or even when it's a good thing -- you did something that helped the company but that your boss foolishly opposed -- telling that to a potential boss is not likely to impress him. – Jay Mar 31 '17 at 18:23
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    Tell them about the time you organized all the employees to go on strike against the corrupt company management. :-) – Jay Mar 31 '17 at 18:23
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All of those are valid (except perhaps the second one - why wouldn't you tell anyone?).

I ask this question in interviews all the time, and I am usually not looking for "management" or "tech lead" experience; they are not the same thing at all. You can show leadership at all levels, and you don't have to have an official "leadership" role.

What I am looking for is evidence that you stepped up when required, took initiative, got something done without specific instruction, helped others either in their personal development or with a specific problem, and so on. That's what leadership means.

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This is a question where you want to be able to show how you worked in a team. It is problematic that you appear to have not worked in a team - as you note, "peer interaction was not existent".

As per your title question,

the answer is to respond with a situation where you showed leadership. This is normally done using "STAR", which is an acronym for how to progress the story.

S. Situation - you begin by describing the situation; "I was selling fruits with my peers when I realised that we were dangerously low on strawberries!"

T. Task - I realised that we were going to need to get more strawberries, and pronto, as the local strawberry eater was due to arrive any minute"

A. Action - I got one peer to buy edible red paint, and another peer to gather our smallest pineapples up, we painted them red and presented them to our strawberry eater as unusually hard and large strawberries.

R. Result - he bought more strawberries than usual! And maybe died! We don't know, but company profits were up that week! Yeehaw!!!

You would, of course, use your own story here - the point is that STAR is the classic method of presentation for soft skills, like a leadership question.

As per your actual question,

you're asking how to present a leadership situation, given you've only ever worked on your own. Leadership is typically thought of as differently from initiative - in our strawberry story above, it is not simply the initiative of selling pineapples as strawberries, but also arranging the peers to take the action and then selling the action that would constitute leadership. Often leadership simply involves getting others to implement someone else's novel idea.

Thus leadership implies that you were working with someone else, and led them. You can hardly lead in a vacuum. So no, you are not showing leadership at all if you've worked on your own.

To answer your question, only the first item, mentoring or training others, really constitutes leadership. The others are examples of initiative.

How do I respond when I've never shown leadership

is probably the real question you're asking. The easiest way here is to think of a time you were led by a peer, and then just turn that story around and say you did it. In the strawberry story, it would be as though you were actually the peer who gathered the pineapples. This is lying, of course, but is the most effective way to give a response.

A better way would be to buy some books on leadership - this HBR book is a really great read. And, having digested that, think about if there is any meeting or group you could form within your company or, failing that, within your industry. This might involve creating a local meetup group for a topic within your industry and arranging meetings - that is an example of leadership.

It doesn't have to be directly work related, and if your job truly offers you no leadership abilities is the best way to gain leadership exposure!

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    "You would, of course, use your own story here" wanted to use the one in your answer :( – Jeroen Mar 31 '17 at 11:19
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Well, it is hard to say how other people understand the word leadership, but to me there is a difference between leadership and management. Taking charge and getting things done is management. Inspiring, developing, coaching others - is leadership. To my definition, only the first point would be a clear example of leadership. If the situation is explained as "someone was wrong, I told them how to do it right" - that wouldn't be a good leadership example... How did you mentor, how did you assess what your "mentee" struggled with, and how did you help him/her find the answer?

But I could have a too idealized picture of what "leadership" means. =)

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