Here’s the core predicament that those in leadership find themselves in: virtually all organisations prize competence and expertise; however, in a mind-bogglingly complex world, no one individual can possibly have all the answers.
A study by business consulting and coaching experts Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner found that virtually all the leaders they spoke to struggled with feelings of incompetence while they faced the challenges inherent to their role. They feared letting people down, looking foolish, losing their authority and even being fired.
However, by skilfully embracing Negative Capability, leaders may help turn cultures of blame and impossible expectation into cultures of innovation and achievement. By saying “I don’t know the answer to that” more frequently, and inviting collaborative inquiry into what the solution might look like, leaders can detoxify the position of “being in doubt and uncertainty”, to quote Keats again. The doubt and uncertainty thereby morphs from being a fearful abyss to be fled from as fast as possible into a safe space for experimentation and creative thinking.
It’s generally experienced as a great relief amongst team members to see leaders modelling the repudiation of impossible expectations. No one need feel tyrannised by unattainable ideals if the leader skilfully guides people into playful experimentation with novel ideas.
New leaders especially have an opportunity to exploit their freshness – by intelligently practising the “I don’t know yet”, mind-set the new leader can positively inspire innovation, both in themselves and in their direct reports. Similarly, encouraging intelligent questions rather than trying to answer queries can instantly point the way to new solutions.
Negative Capability doesn’t imply “Positive Incapacity.” Most leaders do indeed have expertise and competence, or they wouldn’t have been appointed. However, there are times when it’s useful to temporarily suspend one’s knowledge, ditch fears of appearing incompetent, and allow space for free thinking. Established knowledge can act as a blockade against novelty and evolution: doing something differently isn’t necessarily doing something wrong.