5 Questions Every Interviewer Should Ask for Servant Leaders

These 5 questions can help an interviewer assess the servant leadership potential for a candidate in their organization. Each includes good and bad examples.

Interview Questions for Servant LeadersWhat questions do you ask to identify servant leaders during the interview process? If you ever ponder this question, you are not alone. In fact, I am often asked this question but never felt I had a great answer – until now. In Leading Without Power, Max De Pree relayed a Carl Frost story of questions a health care organization asked their employees. Upon reading these questions, the hairs raised on the back of my neck – finally, before me was the answer to that insistent question.

The following 5 questions can help an interviewer assess the servant leadership potential for a candidate in their organization. Each question includes potential variations and examples of good and bad answers.

Interview Question #1: “Do you know the company’s mission?”

Candidates are taught to research the company, so this should be a simple question. They do not need to recite the mission word-for-word, but express a clear understanding of it. More important, the interviewer should look for passion, understanding and alignment with this mission. If the candidate does recite it word-for-word with little intonation or enthusiasm, chances are they merely memorized it and do not truly know (understand) the mission.

Potential Variations:

  • Why do you believe this organization exists?
  • What would you say is the heart of the company?

What A Good Answer Looks Like: The candidate knows the mission, expresses an interest in it and expands upon why the mission excites them.

What A Bad Answer Looks Like: The candidate has no idea what the mission is or has simply memorized it.

Interview Question #2: “Do you understand the supporting data regarding this mission, and do you understand it as a compelling need to change?”

Most non-profit organizations (the emphasis of De Pree’s book), clearly define the supporting data for their mission. While this is less common in the for profit sector, I believe this is short-coming of the for profit sector. Regardless, there are variations that may be appropriate (see below) for other organizations. How ever you ask the question, it is critical that a candidate is able to speak to the supporting data behind your mission. Alternately, if they don’t have quantifiable data, they need to have a personal story or connection – some manner in which they can express their own sense of urgency.

Possible Variations:

  • Can you explain why we are in the category / marketplace / industry we chose?
  • What do you think would happen if we were not attacking our mission?
  • Do you understand our market share and our relative growth (or decline) in recent years?

What a Good Answer Looks Like: The candidate has some quantifiable metrics to support their understanding of the mission. If they don’t have quantifiable metrics, then they have a story – ideally a personal one – to share. They should show an ability to personally relate to the mission.

What a Bad Answer Looks Like: If the candidate speaks in generalities, with no specific example (quantifiable or not) to support their understanding of the mission and why it is your mission.

Interview Question #3: “Do you accept what we as a community are embarked on?”

The core of this question is not a contractual agreement, but a covenant acceptance. The interviewer seeks to understand at what level the candidate is aligned to the organization’s mission. Is this something the candidate accepts at face value only or are they convicted to drive the mission from the essence of their heart? Does the individual see their role as part of a community, which transcends incorporation, in which they accept, counter and balance differences?

Possible Variations:

  • If our organization were a family, what role would you best fitted to fill and why?
  • How do you view your responsibility to counter the faults and weaknesses of other members of our organization?
  • Describe for me a scenario in which you would feel it necessary to leave the company if you were hired?

What a Good Answer Looks Like: There is a sincere conviction by the candidate. They are not just seeking a job but a critical contribution role in a community. They’re willing to take the good with the bad to complete the mission.

What a Bad Answer Looks Like: The candidate may seem very committed, but only as long as the times are good. They caveat their answers and seem motivated more by title and compensation than opportunity and mission.

Interview Question #4: “Are you able and willing to change and to own your share of the problem?”

In asking this question, you set the tone of expectation for all servants in the organization. Some change will be necessary. There will be uncomfortable moments. Growth often requires discomfort. Ownership of the challenges the candidate will face includes the expectation that they will need to challenge the status quo.

Possible Variations:

  • What changes are you not willing to make, to your career, approach or skills for this role?
  • How will you own the responsibilities expected in this role?
  • At what point would you no longer consider an issue your responsibility?

What a Good Answer Looks Like: The candidate understands that owning their part of the mission and their contribution to the community includes growth, change and challenges.

What a Bad Answer Looks Like: The candidate reverts back to their experience and defends how they would not need to change because they already have the necessary requirements according to the job description.

Interview Question #5: “What are you going to bring in terms of competence, contributions and commitment to this project?”

Too often, servant leadership is misinterpreted as soft management. Instead, true servant leadership includes a strong emphasis on accountability. The interviewer here needs to ensure the candidate knows the value they bring and at the same time, understands this expectation of accountability will be placed upon them.

Possible Variations:

  • We see your skills and experience on your resume, what else do you have to contribute to this role?
  • How would you respond if an expectation is placed upon you in an area for which you have no experience or skills?
  • What does accountability mean for you in this role and how will you be accountable to your customer, boss and direct reports?

What a Good Answer Looks Like: The candidate is confident in themselves and their unique potential for the role. At the same time, they are confident that if they do not have the necessary skills or experience, they will find a solution.

What a Bad Answer Looks Like: The candidate fails to understand the accountability or reflects only on their strengths. The answers include no method of addressing their commitment – especially in a scenario that may require further development.

Of course, you will have to ask many more questions, specific to your organization, the role and the candidate in question. No set of interview questions will guarantee accurate identification of servant leadership attributes in a candidate. Furthermore, there are plenty of talented individuals with many skills that are not servant leaders. These individuals may not answer these questions int he manner above and yet they may still deliver value for you in the short term. However, if you seek sustainable success then you seek servant leadership principles in your team. If you seek servant leaders, then these questions will help you distinguish those who seek to serve others from those seeking to serve themselves.

Source: The 5 questions in quotes were adapted from “Leading Without Power, Finding Hope in Serving Community” by Max De Pree. Copyright 1997 by Shepherd Foundation.


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

3 thoughts on “5 Questions Every Interviewer Should Ask for Servant Leaders”

  1. Great article. I like all the questions. What strikes me today is #3: “Do you accept what we as a community have embarked on?” This has so much depth…
    :: Acknowledge of the past; standing on their shoulders
    :: The whole is greater than any one part
    :: Each part is essential to contribute to the whole
    :: You have a part in continuing
    :: The ethos is so important we want you to see, celebrate it, and be a part of it.

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