When the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion began exploring the relationship of professional knowledge to psychotherapeutic practice, he found himself recalling a line by the poet Keats describing, in a letter to his brother, what he called “Negative Capability”:
“…that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
Bion was to some extent underlining the dangers of fantasies of mastery and complete knowledge: a coach who believes they already know the latent meaning of everything a client is struggling to say in a session becomes a kind of well-intentioned tyrant, imposing their (always) partial and possibly spurious understanding instead of allowing their client to explore the unknown.
I think there are good reasons for taking the concept of Negative Capability out of the settings in which it has flourished and importing it into the study and practice of leadership. It’s especially important, I believe, for new managers who are transitioning into a leadership role. The belief that leadership requires you to be an Expert on Everything, with no gaps or blind spots in your knowledge repertoire is a fantasy, not a remotely feasible state.
Full knowledge is an impossibility and such fantasies of omniscience are despotic: we tend to judge our inevitable failures to comprehend, to act decisively, and to overcome uncertainty swiftly as evidence of incompetence and stupidity. Given that the people in your team will have expectations of competence and expertise in their new manager, it’s easy to see how fantasies of omnipotence can gain support from the environment!
There is, however, another way to show leadership. Not only in the formal sense of managing one’s new duties and responsibilities, but also in the more pedagogical sense of leading your team’s unrealistic expectations of infallibility.
Cultivating a tolerance of doubt and uncertainty can be a real asset, a gateway to innovation. I’ll say more about this in Part Two.