WISDOM LEADING: The Conversation

Weekly Wisdoms Blog

Negative Capability

Dr. Foster Mobley // Business, Wisdom Leading

What was it that made William Shakespeare the greatest writer of all time? According to the great poet John Keats, it was what Keats called "negative capability." That's the capacity to hold yourself in balance between the two poles of a situation without imposing your will in order to force a resolution. Doing so allows ambiguities to fully play out and opens everyone up to new levels of understanding. Keats described this quality as "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." I devote much of my time and effort helping leaders build capabilities, yet this one is really tough. In our culture, we're not good at negative capability. We rush to judgment, facts be damned, and are eager to find solutions even if no good ones exist. Humans don't tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty well, yet it's the tension between uncertainty and resolution that makes our greatest drama, fiction and music. In organizations, negative capability empowers leaders to approach problems and conflicts without rushing to one side or the other. It lets them "slow down the game" and allow all factors in a situation to become apparent before a solution is even contemplated. Negative capability is the purview of wise, calm, and controlled. It's a quality we could all do with more of. How might building "negative capability" improve how you lead your team and yourself?

What was it that made William Shakespeare the greatest writer of all time? According to the great poet John Keats, it was what Keats called "negative capability." That's the capacity to hold yourself in balance between the two poles of a situation without imposing your will in order to force a resolution. Doing so allows ambiguities to fully play out and opens everyone up to new levels of understanding. Keats described this quality as "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

I devote much of my time and effort helping leaders build capabilities, yet this one is really tough. In our culture, we're not good at negative capability. We rush to judgment, facts be damned, and are eager to find solutions even if no good ones exist. Humans don't tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty well, yet it's the tension between uncertainty and resolution that makes our greatest drama, fiction and music.

In organizations, negative capability empowers leaders to approach problems and conflicts without rushing to one side or the other. It lets them "slow down the game" and allow all factors in a situation to become apparent before a solution is even contemplated. Negative capability is the purview of wise, calm, and controlled. It's a quality we could all do with more of.

How might building "negative capability" improve how you lead your team and yourself?

2 Comments // Permalink
Current Comments.
  1. Stephanie said:

    I love this concept. We learn so much when we're able to be with tension in a group or relationship. When both people involved can "hold their space," or said another way, be true to the deepest parts of what matters to them in an issues and then choose to communicate, better options for all often emerge. Conversely, when we collapse or give in, no one wins. So much is possible when we are willing to wade through temporary discomfort! Thanks for the blog.
    Stephanie

  2. Foster Mobley said:

    Thanks, Stephanie. Another interesting example: was running this morning when I came across two runners with bluetooth telephone ear pieces in. I immediately went to judgment, dismissing the wisdom of such a silly choice! Trying to return to "negative capacity" I thought of the things that would make their choice perfectly logical - expecting a vital call while trying to sneak in a workout, etc. When I can stay in negative capacity I'm more able to relate, be authentic, etc.


These comments are closed.

6.17.13 2
Comments

Search The Blog

Recent Posts

Summer HiatusSpring, Summer, Fall and WinterCosmos and the Forgotten Power of WonderAmazonís Fire Phone and the Death of ConnectionJune 28th, 1914

Categories

BusinessEducationHistoryQuotablesSportsWisdom Leading

Archives

August 2014July 2014June 2014May 2014April 2014March 2014February 2014January 2014December 2013November 2013October 2013September 2013August 2013July 2013June 2013May 2013April 2013March 2013February 2013January 2013December 2012November 2012October 2012September 2012August 2012July 2012June 2012May 2012April 2012March 2012February 2012January 2012December 2011November 2011October 2011
Return to Blog
Dr. Foster Mobley Blog RSS Feed
 

Dr. Foster Mobley

Trusted advisor and coach to admired executives globally for 3 decades, Thought leader on wisdom-based approaches to breakthrough leading, "Lead Coach" for Deloitte's experienced and high potential leader development, Team performance advisor to two NCAA championship teams