Negative Capability: The Leadership Lesson They Forgot

To the best of my knowledge, John Keats is not required reading at the Rotman School of Management nor at Harvard Business School. This may have something to do with the fact that he is an English Romantic Poet, and not, say, a modern leadership guru. But still, it’s a shame.

One of the greatest leadership lessons I ever learned came by way of John Keats.

Two hundred years ago, the man who penned Ode on a Grecian Urn and La Belle Dames Sans Merci introduced the concept of negative capability to the world (actually he introduced it to a friend by way of a letter and the world has paid attention ever since).  According to Keats, negative capability manifests:

“when [one] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Negative capability is an ability to appreciate fully and experience wholly things that transcend logic. It is an acceptance that there are things that reason, alone, cannot adequately explain. Those who possess negative capability have a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. They can accept contrariness and not be rendered helpless. Negative capability is the power to face the chaos, the swirling formlessness, and not panic.

And this is why I believe negative capability is as important to those who aspire to lead and manage as it to those who make art. Almost anyone can follow a recipe. Or a How To Manual. But the ability to solve problems for which there is no easy answer (and the world is filled with Wicked Problems), the ability to mitigate situations that are charged with emotion, with politics, conflicting views, and layers of complexity - these are the challenges we need those in positions of leadership to manage every day. And while you might imagine the best leaders are those with an affinity for order and control, I think it’s likely that the best also have a certain negative capability.

Generally, I find people like a sense of order and control. We like it when things make sense, when things run smoothly and go according to plan. We like to “have a handle on things.” 

Yet, the truth is that we frequently run into things that are illogical, paradoxical, irrational, unpredictable and unreasonable. 

When Keats talks about the need to exist without any “irritable reaching for fact and reason” he does so not because he is dismissive of fact and reason, per se, but because we are frequently presented with things that are somehow bigger and trickier than “facts.”

I am an educator. For more than two decades, I have been a teacher, coach, principal, and district leader. And it is in this arena where I value  negative capability more and more. Educators, for the most part, have an inherent love of knowledge. We tend to know a lot of facts. But the best know that “facts” are actually a very small part of the job.

You see, the work that happens in schools is fundamentally human. Sure there are budgets to manage and spreadsheets to manipulate, but 

at its essence, our work involves the hearts and minds of people -  of children and teenagers and parents. And I can tell you unequivocally that being able to explain a complex algebra equation (ie. knowing the facts) is one thing, and having the ability to inspire confidence in the child who is convinced that he just can’t do it is something else altogether. 

Similarly, a teacher who presents the “facts” to a parent about a struggling student without the requisite amount of compassion and humanity is likely in for a very difficult encounter, and not as a result of any lack of “facts.”  

When I was a Principal, I knew that every day was going to bring a new and unexpected challenge.  And many of them were not, pardon the pun, textbook problems with obvious answers. Working at a District level position, I see more than ever that big picture stuff is seldom black and white, and frequently demands more than intellectualizing, but the engagement of all faculties - imagination, intuition, and instinct among them. Complexity is the norm.

Which is why, if I were designing a course syllabus for Organizational Leaders, I would insist on John Keats. Of course future managers and executives should seek to have a handle on the things they manage. They should strive to implement and maintain systems that will optimize achievement and improve chances for success. They ought to monitor and adjust and adapt, but they must also be taught to be wary of the trap. One must not become so focused on order and control that one loses sight of the underlying truth, which is: 

we live and work on the brink of uncertainty all the time. 

And the ability to navigate ambiguity and things beyond our control, the capacity to confront the mysteries that appear before us, well, let’s just say a little negative capability can go a long way.
-Sean Nosek


Popular Posts