February 2017
Kevin Knight, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba, Japan

In an organizational leadership seminar that I teach at Kanda University of International Studies in Japan, we were looking closely at behavioral-based interview questions in the career guide of a large university in the United States. All of the questions seemed to be asking for examples of leadership.

Consider the following nine questions from the career guideof the University of California, San Diego (UCSD; 2013).

  1. Describe a situation in which you saw a problem and took action to correct it.

  2. Describe a time when you had to organize a project under a tight timeframe.

  3. Tell me about a situation in which you used teamwork to solve a problem.

  4. Give me an example of a time you had to deal with an irate customer/client.

  5. Describe your leadership style and give me an example of a situation where you successfully led a group.

  6. Tell me about a time when you had to go above and beyond the call of duty in order to get a job done.

  7. Give me an example of when you showed initiative and took the lead.

  8. Give me a specific example of a time when you used good judgment and logic in solving a problem.

  9. Give me an example of a time when you set a goal and were able to meet or achieve it. (p. 26)

Now, let’s look at how leadership is conceptualized. In Conversations on Leadership, Liu (2010) had conversations with “global management gurus” (i.e., leadership experts) including Kouzes, Bennis, Senge, Gardner, and Kotter. From those interviews, he summed up leadership to be the following:

  • “First, leadership is about activity, not about position.” (p. 3)

  • “Second, leadership is about change, not about management.” (p. 4)

I discovered the same core themes of act and change in the data obtained from my own semistructured interviews of leaders in the public, private, and academic sectors (Knight, 2015). In view of the conceptualizations of leadership above, the nine behavioral-based interview questions from the UCSD career guide are asking for examples of leadership. In other words, the interviewer is asking the interviewee, “Are you able to influence others and thereby change our organization for the better?”

So, what is an organization? Schneider (2001) writes:

A growing literature on organizations takes the perspective that knowledge in organizations and organizations themselves are constituted through communicative practice (e.g., G. Miller, 1997b; Sarangi & Roberts, 1999; Taylor & Lerner, 1996). Organizations, from this perspective, are regarded as ongoing social accomplishments in which “resources are produced and regulated, problems are solved, identities are played out and professional knowledge is constituted” (Sarangi & Roberts, 1999, p. 1) through social interaction. From such a perspective, knowledge in organizations cannot be regarded as a fixed, stable body of facts or information. Rather, it must be seen as situated, dynamic, constantly negotiated, and constantly shifting, as members of organizations work to have their version of the organization legitimated as the one that counts. (p. 228)

When you view organizations from the perspective of Sarangi and Roberts (1999) above, you recognize the importance of communication skills for personal success in an organization. In the light of the relationship between communication and success, how can you prepare your L2 learners to tell their success stories in job interviews?

In the career manual of the University of California, Davis (2010), readers are advised to answer behavioral questions, such as those nine questions from UCSD listed above, with the S.T.A.R. method. Using the S.T.A.R. method, the response to a behavioral question is divided into the following four parts listed in order:

  1. Situation
  2. Task/Problem
  3. Action
  4. Result (University of California, Davis, 2010, p. 42)

In my own classes in Japan, I advise my students to create a portfolio of S.T.A.R. stories that they can use to respond to various interview questions, not only behavioral questions. I remind my students that the key to success in telling such stories is not to memorize a story but instead to memorize the details that make a story into an impressive one. The students also need to remember to include such details in the telling of their S.T.A.R. stories.

For example, in one of my classes for unemployed adult learners at Kanda University of International Studies, one of the students had a leadership story that could be divided into the following four parts of the S.T.A.R. framework. (The following is my adaptation of that story for this article.)

  1. Situation: It was a cold day in winter.

  2. Task/Problem: The flights at an airport had been cancelled. Many passengers were waiting in front of the check-in counter.

  3. Action: The student took care of the passengers.

  4. Result: The passengers could eventually board flights.

Without certain details, the story above is not as impressive as it could be. The following details were elicited from the student and added to her story.

  • It was the coldest day in Japan. It was snowing. All of the airplanes were grounded because they were frozen. There were only two machines in the airport that could thaw out an airplane. They could only take care of one airplane at a time.

  • There were 150 passengers in front of the ticket counter. There was not transportation in or out of the airport so the passengers could not go to a hotel.

  • The student’s manager was not taking any action to take care of the 150 passengers.

  • At the airport, the student had worked in the food service section prior to working at the check-in counter. Accordingly, she took the initiative to obtain meals and blankets and pillows for all of the passengers.

  • The student also organized her other two colleagues (i.e., not the manager) at the check-in counter so the three ground staff were each in charge of caring for 50 of the 150 passengers.

  • After two days, the passengers could board flights. The situation ended without any problems because of the initiative of the student to take a leadership role.

Before the story above was elicited from the student in class, she believed that she did not have a leadership story to tell. After this story was shared with her classmates, her level of confidence increased dramatically because she (and others) recognized her impressive actions as a leader.

In addition to being important in a job interview, confidence is also very important for graduate school admissions interview success in my experience. In preparing L2 learners for MBA admissions interviews in English as a counselor in Japan, one of my activities was to take the role of the interviewer in mock interviews. The students participating in the interviews had been taught that their lack of confidence about their English language skills could be misunderstood to be a lack of confidence about something else, such as future performance in the MBA program or past accomplishments. Accordingly, in addition to being able to tell their S.T.A.R. stories with impressive details, the students needed to be able to tell such stories with confidence!

As ESPers, we add value by conducting research of professional communication and applying our findings in the training of our L2 learners. By helping our learners to use English language communication skills as a tool in their training or work, we are helping our learners to obtain their career goals and to change their workplaces for the better.

NOTE: This article is based on Knight (2014), “ESP Interview Training: Identifying Leadership,” first published on the TESOL Blog. Adapted with permission.


Knight, K. (2015). Analysing the discourses of leadership as a basis for developing leadership communication skills in a second or foreign language. Sydney, Australia: Macquarie University.

Liu, L. (2010). Conversations on leadership: Wisdom from global management gurus. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons (Asia) on behalf of Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint.

Sarangi, S., & Roberts, C. (Eds.). (1999). Talk, work and institutional order: Discourse in medical, mediation and management settings. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.

Schneider, B. (2001). Constructing knowledge in an organization: The role of interview notes. Management Review Quarterly, 15(2), 227–255.

University of California, Davis. (2010). Career resource manual 2010-2011. Geneva, Illinois: College Recruitment Media.

University of California, San Diego. (2013). Career guide 2013-14. San Diego, California: UC San Diego Career Center.

Kevin Knight (PhD in linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is associate professor in the Department of International Communication of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. His research interests include leadership conceptualization and development, ESP, and professional communication. (See The Leadership Connection Project.)