5 pitfalls of terrible leadership stories

By: Jack Pelzer

Photo by Eric Santillian, via Wikimedia Commons

Can you give an example of an instance in which you demonstrated outstanding leadership? You better, because every behavioral interview is bound to include some form of this question. Employers LOVE leadership experience (even if they are filling jobs that require blind obedience to a tyrannical middle manager).

So how can you improve your answer to this inevitable prompt? Unfortunately, there aren’t any short cuts. Crafting a compelling leadership narrative is both time-consuming and difficult, but the good news is that it’s pretty easy to avoid telling terrible leadership stories. Just avoid doing these things:

 1. Discussing events that happened in the distant past

There is a reason that resumes flow in reverse chronological order. Companies are much more interested in what you’ve done lately as opposed to what you did back when Rob Thomas still featured Santana. If possible, try to focus on your most recent employment.

Bad Example:

“After we initiated my radical s’mores restructuring plan, Cub Scout Troop 174 saved almost $7 per Jamboree in graham cracker acquisition costs.”

  1. Stories that people can’t understand unless they worked at your old company for 15 years

Every industry has its own language, and every company has its distinct dialect. Have you ever been the odd-person-out at a gathering of people who work together? Interviewers don’t enjoy that feeling either.

Bad Example:

“My XVR calculations, which of course were backwards quantum compatible, decreased auto-spreader latency by 3 milliseconds and allowed risk management to launch Protocol Alpha. Because of this, we made 400 Bitcoins.”

  1. Examples of leadership that resulted in highly negative outcomes

Companies value leadership experience because strong leadership is highly correlated with positive outcomes. They are not looking for leadership in the abstract. Cult leaders and despots are strong leaders—this doesn’t mean that they should be managing accounts receivable. You may have compelling tales of ingenuity and leadership that ended in complete disaster. Save them for your memoirs.

Bad Example:

“I combined two struggling sales teams into a single unit that resulted in the single largest milk recall in U.S. history!”

  1. Stories that lack structure

For thousands of years, humans have enjoyed stories that feature a distinct beginning, middle, and end. You should probably try to follow this example. Create a leadership story that reads like a tight, Hollywood screenplay —but not Memento.

Bad Example:

“I went straight to my supervisor and told her that we were wasting millions on office supplies… Did I mention that this was a problem? Oh yeah. It was. I was working for Office Max.”

  1. Buffet of business buzzwords

Please do not speak as though you are the uptight boss in a romantic comedy.

Bad Example:

“The low hanging fruit was gone, so I leveraged my core competencies to ideate a gamified deliverable that increased cross-functional synergy by 600%. Then I went home to my one-room apartment, stared in the mirror, and cried.”


About Jack

Jack is the editor-in-chief of the MBA Irish Echoes.