How to Interview Candidates for Leadership Potential 

How to Interview Candidates for Leadership Potential 

by Jeanne Knutzen | June 4, 2018

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PACE LeadersFIVE  Interview Questions That Will Help You Identify Candidates with Leadership Potential!

Whether you are a small company – where every employee has to have leadership qualities;  a fast growth company – who needs a ready pipeline of employees prepared for formal leadership roles; or a company who can’t afford the price tag of a seasoned leadership candidate so needs to take on a “development” project, assessing a candidate’s “leadership talent” may need to be an important component of your hiring process.

Our view is that while management skills and functions can be taught, leadership talent often comes baked in!  Find that talent in your behavioral interview, and put it to work quickly!

The good news is that screening employees for leadership potential doesn’t have to be an expensive or time consuming process.  While you can purchase a costly “leadership assessment” package from just about any assessment service provider, there are also a handful of simple interview questions you can add to your selection interviews that may accomplish the same result with a much lower cost.

Here are five interview questions the recruiters at PACE Staffing Network ask candidates when recognizing that leadership potential is important to our client. These questions are based on what we believe are some of the key attributes of leadership talent, those qualities that can be found in a candidate who has never held a formal leadership job.

Leadership Drive

We find that individuals with leadership talent often come with a track record of ‘falling into” leadership roles.  For these candidates, opportunities to lead just tend to come available to them in both their personal and business lives.  There is no job title – there is just an opportunity to lead.  People with leadership talent tend to step into these role “because they can.”

We identify these individuals using a very simple but basic set of interview questions:

Interview Question #1 – “Describe one or two situations where you ended up playing an important and influential role on a team, even though you were never assigned that job.” 

Follow up Questions:

  • How did you see your role in helping the team be successful?
  • How do you think you fell into that role?
  • Did you enjoy this role? If so, why?
  • How often do you find yourself in this type of informal leadership position?

Look For…

  • Patterns of assuming the role of leadership even without formal appointment
  • If and why they enjoy the leadership role – i.e. their willingness to assume that type of informal responsibility

Leadership Style

People with leadership talent often come with a set of skills or behaviors that earns them the attention and respect of others whenever they are in a situation to become part of a group or team.  Here’s how we find out if the candidate is aware of their talent for garnering “influence” and how they use that talent:

Interview Question #2 – “When you become part of a new group how do you go about earning the group’s respect and admiration and ultimately establish yourself as someone who can influence others?”     

Follow Up Questions…

  • Provide an example.
  • What if that technique doesn’t work? What else might you try?
  • Do you consider yourself an idea person?  Someone who always comes up with new ideas for the team.  Give me an example of how you do that?

Look For…

  • Comfort and confidence in their ability to lead from a strength that for them, has typically put them into a role of leadership.
  • Patterns of behavior that you know would be respected and valued by the team they would be joining.
  • Their ability to generate ideas that might help your team to perform better.

Leadership Relationships

While most experienced leaders have a keen awareness of the difference between their role as leader, and their role as friend or confidant to the people they are leading,  less experienced employees with leadership talent, often have some awareness of how their relationships with their peers needs to change when they have take on a leadership role.

To assess a candidate’s experience or ability to navigate the complications of personal and professional relationships, how about asking…

Interview Question #3 – “Describe a situation where you had a personal relationship with someone on your team who you knew was not always behaving in the best interests of the team, and created a conflict for you personally.”    

Follow Up Questions…

  • How were you able to retain your personal relationship with your friend without compromising your role of influence on the team?
  • How did you address your conflict with your friend?

Look For…

  • Experience with these types of “draw the line” situations and the learnings the candidate obtained from handling each obstacle.

Leadership Stamina

Leadership talent is typically underwritten by a considerable amount of personal stamina – the special energy it takes to weather the ups and downs of the leadership role.  Leaders find ways to refuel themselves when they find their tank empty.

Knowing something about how an employee is likely to show up when the going gets tough is an important component of a hiring process that is focused on leadership talent. Here is a question in our arsenal that you might find helpful.

Interview Question #4 – “Describe a situation where there were so many things going wrong that you had to work hard to keep yourself positively motivated.    What did you do to keep yourself positive and help others do the same?”    

Follow Up Questions…

  • Do you think others knew the situation was personally challenging for you?
  • What were you doing personally to make sure you had the energy required for the situation?
  • What ideas were you able to bring forward to the group to help yourself and the group perform better?

Look for…

  • How they personally deal with difficult challenges? How honest were they in describing their personal challenges
  • Their awareness of the impact they have on others – their responsibility to be a role model
  • The quality of ideas they came up with to help the team find a solution.

 Leadership Self Management – Problem Solving. Change. Unknowns 

An important trait that we believe is an earmark of leadership talent gets revealed in situations where there are a lot of unknowns or extended periods of change.   How someone solves problems, or makes decisions in these types of environments, even in the face of unknowns, tells us a lot about their leadership talent.

Here’s the question we ask to assess a candidate‘s capacity to handle the unknowns:

Interview Question #5 –  “Describe a situation where your company or team was going thru a lot of change, uncertainties and unknowns.  What did you do to get yourself thru that situation?  How did you help your team get thru the ups and downs of change?”

Follow Up Questions…

  • How did you go about getting the information you needed in order to know how to proceed?
  • How did you handle your personal concerns with the “unknowns”?
  • What ideas did you come up with that tended to help you or your team perform better?

Look For…

  • A willingness to ask others for help.
  • An ability to be “self managed” – to take initiative, to be resourceful
  • A comfort level with “not knowing” and how they were able to help others with them “not knowing” .
  • Techniques the candidate used to learn what they needed to know…their learning agility.

Notice that all five questions are behavioral – requiring the candidate to give examples of how they have demonstrated their talent for leadership.   How you define leadership in your work environment may require different questions than the ones identified here…and don’t be afraid to pull from actual situations to craft your questions.

What we know is that if all candidates are asked the same interview questions, it is easy to identify the ones who are likely to behave in ways that are the right fit for your work environment and your expectations of their behavior. Not all candidates will answer all questions in the way you would like.   Better they disappoint during the interview rather than after they are hired.

This article was written by Jeanne Knutzen, founder and President of the PACE Staffing Network, an award winning staffing company headquartered in Bellevue Washington.  PACE provides recruiting and staffing services for companies located throughout the Puget Sound for temporary ,temp to hire and direct hire positions.   Contact us at

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