As a Leader, Are You Willing to be Zero?
By: Randy Wolken, President & CEO

As a leader, are you willing to be zero?  What do I mean by that?  When you are in a conversation, can you just be totally present, listen fully, and without any intent to contribute to the effort at that moment?  Leaders have a really hard time doing that.  Trust me, I know.

Recently, I have learned about the concept of adding something, just being there, and subtracting something (+, 0, -).  As leaders, we have been trained to add value.  We have been rewarded for “making a difference” and “taking the lead” and “having the answers.”  This is the addition (+) we get paid for – and rightfully so.  However, if we are always trying to add to the situation – does it actually become a subtraction (-)?  I think so.  As a leader, when we are always trying to add without fully hearing the suggestions of others or fully accepting the contribution of others, we usually subtract from the team’s success equation.  Sometimes, many times, what is asked of us is to just be available to listen.  We need to just be present and affirm they have provided value.  I call it “being zero.”  In fact, when I am “being zero” I can avoid subtracting from what others are contributing.  It also allows others to more quickly and completely contribute.  Even my reactions – both negative and positive – can subtract (-) from a conversation and decision making process.  Being neutral – even for a moment – helps others contribute.  However, it is hard to just be present.

So, why is it so hard for leaders, especially senior leaders, to just be present and listen?  I believe it has something to do with responsibility and power.  We too often feel responsible for everything.  And, to some level we are certainly accountable for all that transpires.  But, does that mean we are responsible to do it?  Nope.  We are only ultimately accountable.  Therefore, the responsibility falls rightly to our team.  When we try to do it for them, we are a negative or subtraction.  This is the value of a flat organization – proper responsibility and accountability and a chance to listen first-hand to the challenges that face our teams.  However, we still must listen – be zero – if we are going to help our team take the lead and be successful.

So, next time you feel compelled to have the answer – pause and just listen. Strategies I have found helpful include counting to ten before I even attempt to respond, asking a question that encourages my team to explain their thinking, and applauding their contribution before I offer any additional insight.  There are literally dozens of ways to encourage greater team ownership and contribution.  However, it usually includes me just listening first.  When I have, I see amazing things happen.