How do you demonstrate your leadership?

Many government roles ask applicants about their leadership, either in the application, and/or at interview. Explaining how leadership behaviours have been demonstrated can be challenging, particularly if you are not a team leader, supervisor or manager. However, any person can demonstrate leader behaviour, or potential, by thinking about the range of behaviours involved. Understanding what leadership is and what actions reflect it is occurring will help with responding well to inquiries about being a leader.

APS views on leadership

Messages about leadership from public sector documents include:

  • Leadership is not about seniority (although leadership is most clearly and strongly associated with senior executive roles).
  • Leadership is a practice—something we do.
  • Leadership is not about personality traits.
  • Every employee, regardless of level, is expected to display leadership behaviours.
  • There is no single way to lead.

The Secretaries Talent Council, with the endorsement of the Secretaries Board have identified the leadership capabilities considered critical for success in the most senior roles in the APS. While you may not be aspiring to an SES role, it is useful to know about these leadership capabilities as the difference between seniority levels in demonstrating these behaviours is a matter of degree.

  •  “Visionary: To provide the best policy advice to government, senior leaders need to be able to scan the horizon for emerging trends, identifying opportunities and challenges for the nation.
  • Influential: To take the government’s policy agenda forward, senior leaders need the capacity to persuade others towards an outcome, winning and maintaining the confidence of government and key stakeholders.
  • Collaborative: In making progress on issues that cut across agencies, sectors and nations, senior leaders need to be able to develop relationships, build trust and find common ground with others. An openness to diverse perspectives is critical.
  • Entrepreneurial: In finding new and better ways of achieving outcomes on behalf of government and citizens, senior leaders need to be able to challenge current perspectives, generate new ideas and experiment with different approaches. They also need to be adept at managing risk.
  • Enabling: Creating an environment that empowers individuals and teams to deliver their best for government and citizens is a core requirement for senior leaders. This includes setting expectations, nurturing talent and building capability.
  • Delivers: Senior leaders need to be highly skilled at managing the delivery of complex projects, programs and services. This includes harnessing the opportunity provided by digital technology to improve delivery outcomes for citizens.
  • Self-awareness, courage and resilience: These personal qualities sit at the heart of effective leadership in the APS. For APS leaders, mobilising and driving change requires a strong capacity for action and agency on the one hand, and an equally strong capacity for understanding and contending with constraints. Self-awareness, courage and resilience enable senior leaders to hold stead through the challenges of leadership.”

A 2011-12 leadership development strategy (no longer accessible) was based on a knowing-doing-being model that encompasses building cognitive capabilities and intelligence, having the behavioural and skill dimensions of a leader, and having a concept of self as a leader.

  • Knowing covers public service processes; people, stakeholder, and change management; public service craft; being government savvy; and business skills.
  • Doing covers the five capabilities in order to deliver outcomes.
  • Being is about high levels of self-awareness; conviction and courage; resilience; an ability to work with others; being situationally aware; having a sense of public service vocation and strong ethics.

The APS Work Level Standards includes ‘Leadership and accountability’ as one of five characteristics to distinguish job requirements at each level.

The Integrated Leadership System recognises that leaders need a mixture of technical and management expertise as well as leadership capabilities. This mix differs depending on the level of seniority of the person. The leadership component is particularly reflected in three capabilities:

  • Shapes strategic thinking
  • Achieves results
  • Cultivates productive working relationships.

Demonstrating leadership

Talking about how you lead takes into account public sector capabilities, departmental behaviours, and the context of a particular role.

Some public sector capabilities identify the behaviours that demonstrate leadership. For example, The Leadership Competencies for Queensland, covers three main areas – vision, results, and accountability.


  • Leads strategically: Thinks critically and acts on the broader purpose of the system
  • Stimulates ideas and innovation: Gathers insights and embraces new ideas and innovation to inform future practice
  • Leads change in complex environments: Embraces change and leads with focus and optimism in an environment of complexity and ambiguity
  • Makes insightful decisions: Makes considered, ethical and courageous decisions based on insight into the broader context.


  • Develops and mobilises talent: Strengthens and mobilises the unique talents and capabilities of the workforce
  • Builds enduring relationships: Builds and sustains relationships to enable the collaborative delivery of customer-focused outcomes
  • Inspires others: Inspires others by driving clarity, engagement and a sense of purpose
  • Drives accountability and outcomes: Demonstrates accountability for the execution and quality of results through professionalism, persistence and transparency


  • Fosters healthy and inclusive workplaces” Fosters an inclusive workplace where health, safety and wellbeing is promoted and prioritised
  • Pursues continuous growth: Pursues opportunities for growth through agile learning, and development of self-awareness
  • Demonstrates sound governance: Maintains a high standard of practice through governance and risk management.”

Some desirable leadership behaviours include: [Extract from How to Write and Talk to Selection Criteria 6th edn.]

  • Political nous: scanning the political, cultural and social environment, diagnosing situations, analysing stakeholders, issues, perspectives, understanding the power context, thinking politically, risk savvy.
  • Future focus and strategic thinking: scanning the horizon, anticipating future change, strategic questioning, generating options, weighing alternatives, balancing competing interests, developing and implementing plans; dealing comfortably with ambiguity and complexity.
  • Leading people: creating a culture in which people thrive, creating a vision, mobilising capacity, fostering diversity, motivating and inspiring staff to perform well; building capability.
  • Leading change: working collaboratively, building alliances and partnerships, brokering solutions, mobilising systems, agility, anticipating and responding to change, unlocking innovation, developing new habits.
  • Being a leader: ways of understanding self and others, emotional intelligence, resilience, continual learning, social awareness, stewardship of culture, moral courage, judgement, self-insight, displaying an appropriate balance between self-confidence and humility, modelling ethical behaviour.
  • Working across boundaries: creating an environment for groups to collaborate, drawing out competing perspectives, exploring values and assumptions, helping groups to understand each other and work towards solutions; building a broad spectrum of relationships.
  • Delivering outcomes: financial and commercial acumen, accountable for outcomes, maximising resources, monitoring and measuring performance.

Another way to think about leadership behaviour is in terms of different spheres:

Personal leadership: operates with a strong moral compass; aware of own values and how they synch with organisational values; senses when situations may test integrity and takes appropriate action; actively promotes organisational values; does not undermine organisational values with cynicism or contrary actions; models leadership development approaches and facilitates learning opportunities; stays calm under pressure; displays resilience; maintains a sense of perspective.

Technical leadership: expertise in specific subject areas, public sector knowledge (such as policies, procedures, processes, legislation), competencies (such as project management), or ICT (systems, software, databases, website management); provides strategic, specialist advice; actively shares expertise with peers, staff, managers; skilled in translating technical information for lay people; shares expertise externally at seminars, conferences, meetings; actively engages with professional groups, academics, discussion groups to stay current and build wider expertise.

Thought leadership: develops strategies for enhancing performance, relationships, or improving outcomes; considers multiple components during planning; explores contradictory positions; anticipates, mitigates and manages risks; generates original ideas or solutions; gains support for new ideas.

People leadership: paints a compelling picture of the future; makes it safe to experiment and make mistakes; gains buy-in for new ideas/approaches; quickly builds rapport with diverse people; identifies potential areas of conflict and manages to minimise escalation; exercises judgement as to how and when to intervene in issues and when to coach others; develops a talent pool of suitable successors.

Ethical leadership: builds an ethical culture that impacts credibility, reputation and compliance with values.

The Leadership Competencies for Queensland document offers five leadership streams, showing the balance between leadership and technical responsibility. These streams are:

  • “Individual contributor: leading self. Here self-management and specialist knowledge and skills are important, with less than one quarter of responsibility being leadership.
  • Team leader: leading others. Here a person is valued for their specialist experience and ability to manage team members. Less than one half of responsibility is leadership.
  • Program leaders: leading teams and/or projects. Such a person is valued for their ability to lead program strategy and/or guide team leaders to deliver outcomes. More than three-quarters of the role is leadership.
  • Executive: leading the function. This leader leads a service delivery, policy, regulatory or strategic advisory function or a geographical area, and leads other executives and influences internally and externally to deliver outcomes. Leadership is 100 percent of the role.
  • Chief executive: leading the organisation. Leads executives and the organisation and influences through sector and system leadership. Leadership is 100 percent of the role.”

You can use these distinctions to talk about how you self-manage, use specialist knowledge and skills, lead teams and projects.

The document then specifies how each of the competencies apply to each stream through behavioural indicators. Leads strategically is one of the Vision competencies. What this means is ‘Thinks critically and acts on the broader purpose of the system’. For the Individual contributor the behavioural indicators are:

  •  “Recognises how organisational events and issues impact on the work of the team.
  • Recognises and articulates how own work directly contributes to the organisation’s vision and community outcomes.
  • Prioritises projects and tasks efficiently, in line with team commitments.
  • Seeks and shares customer feedback to support the refinement of planned activities.”

For the Team leader, these behavioural indicators are:

  • “Determines the connections between organisational events and issues, and their impact on the team’s work.
  • Recognises and articulates how the team’s work contributes to the organisation’s vision and community outcomes.
  • Works with the team to organise work priorities so they deliver on broader organisational commitments.
  • Seeks and leverages stakeholder feedback to steer and adjust plans, and encourage others to do the same.”

Notice how there is a shift in focus from personal work to the team’s work, and an expanding perspective to embrace a broader organisational view. The verbs used in these lists can be applied to your own experience. For example, “I recognised that …” “I leveraged feedback from stakeholders to …” “I articulated the purpose and goals of this project at monthly meetings …”

Another take on how to demonstrate leadership is to think about the role you are in and the role of you are applying for, and consider who you influence. Influence operates in four main directions:

  • Down the line: influencing people who report to you or work with you.
  • Up the line: influencing people more senior to you, including your boss and your boss’s boss.
  • Along the line: influencing people in other teams, branches, part of the organisation.
  • Over the line: influencing people outside your organisation, including other departments and agencies, Ministers, other jurisdictions, various stakeholders.

The more senior your role, the more you will be influencing up, along and over the line.

Departmental leadership requirements

Departments may specify leadership behaviours that they value. For example, Finance includes in their Job Packs, reference to their Finance People Capability Framework which covers six capabilities. One of these is ‘Lead’ and applies across levels. The Department of Defence identifies key behaviours that they require for all leaders and supervisors. Any job that seeks a person to lead something or someone needs to consider these behaviours.

Role context

A role that involves leading, directing and managing has a leadership component. More senior roles, those just below the senior executive roles, and those that involve leading a team, project or program, clearly have leadership responsibilities.

Career planning for leadership experience

You can provide convincing evidence of your leadership by understanding the above information and applying it to your circumstances. Rather than waiting until a job opportunity arrives, think strategically about the work you are now doing and what experience you need to gain in order to demonstrate your leadership. Do you need a mentor, further training, different experience? Are you keeping records of your experience and how you are manifesting the behaviours of a leader? Do you need help with identifying how leadership behaviours are reflected in your work? Answering these questions will help set you up for your next application.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.