The standard leadership advice is simple. It advocates working hard, staying positive, and empowering employees. But what happens when there are substantial challenges along the way? For Aaron Kull, that’s where real leadership begins.
Kull knows his stuff. An entrepreneur, consultant, and former healthcare executive, he’s bounced between industries and worked at a wide variety of companies, from small-scale businesses to massive corporations.
Along the way, he’s faced his share of obstacles. From organizational challenges to ethical dilemmas, he’s encountered a variety of hurdles that aren’t always discussed in traditional stewardship courses.
He explained that the first step to effective captaincy during hard times is self-discovery. Leaders need to know themselves before hoping to inspire others with their vision. Not only must a leader know themself, but a leader must also deeply know their team and what motivates and inspires them. A servant and empathetic leadership style is key to supporting a team to produce results. That’s essentially what leadership is, producing results through others. To do that, you must work across the leadership team to create an environment where leaders support all those below them with full commitment and conviction to enable their success.
Aaron Kull described his own leadership style as grounded in trust, transparency, humility, and high standards. “Transparency and consistency, and vulnerability, to the degree that it’s possible, are really important from a leader,” he said. “Employees are quick to pick up on incongruences. Once it’s displayed, leaders lose commitment of followership, and it becomes more difficult to get the team to adapt and continue to operate as high performing teams.
“One of the things that I have found to be most important about being a leader is being willing to roll up your sleeves and be in the weeds. You cannot hide in an office or behind a wall of a title. You must be visible, accessible, and understood. You must understand the business at every level to effectively lead. Sometimes that means getting your hands dirty with everyone else and walking some days in others’ shoes.
“The smallest of details must not escape a leader’s gaze,” Kull continued. “At the same time, they have to keep in mind the overarching vision. This is a tightrope to walk — you don’t want to strangle your team with micromanagement. You need them to be free to try, to fail, to create. You need to guide them in a way that makes them feel empowered.”
Beyond ethical and organizational challenges, leaders also must deal with personal challenges. Self-limiting beliefs, more commonly discussed as “impostor syndrome,” is something that many managers have to contend with at promotion or a new job, Aaron Kull explained. “I think one of my perspectives that I’ve gained from personal experience is that not having done something before does not preclude you from doing it successfully in the future,” he said. “I really think that trying new things is important for ensuring that you’re constantly growing and expanding your skill set. That is a huge part of professional and also individual growth.”
One of the best ways to handle nagging doubts is to purposely push yourself into new places, he added. Not only will it help you understand more aspects of business, but it can also spur new kinds of personal development that may surprise you.
Taking it up one level is where things get even trickier. Looking at the culture, style, and relationships/politics within the executive leadership team can provide a clear view of where the organization is headed and the risks that present themselves in pursuit of that vision.
“If there is one thing that I have seen break businesses faster than anything else, it is misalignment at the executive leadership level,” Kull observed. “A leadership team that lacks the ability to have tough conversations and hold themselves and each other accountable will not survive difficult times — and even worse, if the leadership team is not laser focused on agreed priorities, the organization beneath them can quickly splinter.
“When you’re a leader, you need to be able to make decisions that are congruent with the destiny you hope to achieve for the business and the mission that you’ve explained to the people that are working to make it a reality. It’s really, really important,” Aaron Kull stated. “Being able to make prudent decisions that help the organization achieve its goals while making sure that you stick to your own deeply held beliefs is essential if you want people to follow you.”
Another essential for effective leadership? Facing hurdles with a self-effacing sense of grace. “As I grew in my career, I think the things that shaped me most effectively as a leader were challenge and humility,” Kull revealed. “I think that becoming humble through your leadership experience is really important and it helps you gain empathy as a leader; it helps you gain perspective as a leader.”
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