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When hiring a leader, look for character, maturity

When hiring a leader, look for character, maturity

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john-engles_column-sigWhen you hire or promote a leader, what attributes do you look for?

Most organizations emphasize intelligence, talent and accomplishments. They want to know what someone is good at, and they ask about an individual’s record of success.

Top-level job-hunting coaches lean heavily toward positive spin—presenting background and experience in the most impressive wording possible. The salient idea behind all resumes and job interviews is, “Put your best foot forward.”

That makes perfect sense if the focus is on raw ability: Can this person do the job? Do they think strategically?

But what about other important dimensions of a leader’s success such as self-awareness, openness to feedback and trustworthiness? How can an organization learn more about an applicant’s “real self” before they hire or promote?

I’m asking these questions because I have observed how often key hires don’t work out. More often than not, the problem resides in their degree of character and level of maturity—not in their job competence per se.

To learn more about a person’s substance, the interview conversations have to go deeper. They have to get beyond “best foot forward.”

The best way to do this is to ask questions that provide hints about a candidate’s depth and resilience. Such questions are more probing, novel and risking than typical “vanilla” interview questions for which candidates have usually prepped to look impressive.

Let’s take a closer look at depth and resilience as interview goals.


Depth has to do with reflectiveness—an individual’s capacity to reflect on an experience and learn from it. The more leadership responsibility you have, the more important it is to reflect on your own life and to become a more astute observer of your own and others’ behaviors.

To probe a person’s depth, consider giving leadership candidates a few “take-home” questions for reflection and later discussion. Depth-revealing questions require self-honesty with a minimum of “bluff.” For example:

“Give an example of a time when your judgment about another person’s character turned out to be inaccurate.”

“Do you lean more towards empathy or toughness? Give an example.”

“Name a recent situation in which you acted outside your integrity.”

“What current habits and behaviors of yours risk your premature demise?”

“Who do you tend to blame the most?”

Do you notice the edginess of these questions? That’s what produces the value.


Resilience is measured by how a person responds to adversity. The ability to recover from setbacks, losses and mistakes is a centerpiece of goal-directed activity.

In an interview, to assess resilience you want to discover a person’s ability to maintain perspective and persevere through difficulties.

To discover more about a leader’s resilience, consider asking questions about his/her responses to four types of experiences: mistakes, biases, failures and adversity. Consider questions along these lines:

“Give an example of a mistake that helped you learn an important lesson.”

“What are your rules of thumb for handling another’s big mistake?

“When’s the last time you really blew it? How did you handle it?”

“What steps do you take to become more aware of your biases and blind spots?”

“In your view, is it ever accurate to claim a complete lack of bias?”

“How do you handle race, religion or gender biases that you detect in those who report to you?”

“Outside of your record of successes, what have been your most glaring failures?”

“What have you learned from failing?”

“What do you see as the difference between acceptable and unacceptable failures?”

“What are the most noteworthy barriers you’ve faced in your lifetime?”

“What have you learned about yourself from the adversity you’ve experienced?”

“What do you see as the upside and downside to a ‘suck it up’ mindset?”

Obstacles to deeper questions

To pose challenging questions like those suggested above, two obstacles must be overcome.

The first obstacle is the possibility that the person asking the questions has never addressed and applied those questions to self. This is the problem of pretense: the interviewer is trying to lead others into a terrain they have never hiked.

A superficial individual cannot become credible by asking a deep question they read about in a business journal column. A question has to be lived before it can credibly be asked of others.

A second obstacle to posing important, thought-provoking questions centers on managing discomfort. Whenever you ask a probing question, candidates are likely to squirm. Commonly, they will say they have never thought about the question, that no one has ever asked that question of them, or that they would have to think before responding to the question.

The key is for the one asking the question to remain calm in the face of another’s discomfort. Too often, interviewers nervously retract the question at the first sign of the interviewee’s discomfort.

Remember: discomfort is part of leadership, so you want to observe how a person manages themselves during an uneasy moment. It’s hard to pay attention to that when you’re nervous yourself.

The lesson of this column is that if you want to select a leader based not only on know-how and background, but also on character and maturity, it’s going to cost you the effort to formulate thoughtful questions. And it’s going to require a willingness to regulate your own anxiety about the other’s discomfort.

The big benefit of this vetting process is the deeper understanding you will likely gain about how a potential key leader would fit in your organization.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].