The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Letting chaos be

Some concepts move through a variety of domains which may lead to not only broad definitions but also to a vast number of definitions. This is true for example with negative capability.

It was first described by John Keats an English poet. He described negative capability, as a writer’s ability, to accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” highlighting how Shakespeare possessed it enormously. He saw it as one of the moods that may compete in the writer’s mind before a poem emerges.

It’s a mood that involves intellectual uncertainty and confusion. One writers may allow themselves to experience in the pursuit of their vision of artistic beauty. Writers and philosophers then used this idea to describe the ability to perceive and recognize truths beyond the reach of consecutive reasoning.

Finding its way to experience negative capability, requires time and patience as it may have to be learned. It is a process of disconnecting oneself from the reassuring certainties people have been trained to prefer. And one that is experienced as being negative to ‘consecutive reasoning’. It also involves being objective and emotionally detached from the experience itself.

Negative capability has since been applied to fields like religious experience, the teaching practice, the psychoanalytical method, social theory as well as organizational and leadership studies.

Something that makes it interesting in the realm of leadership studies is the connection between negative and positive capability.

Leadership is most often described through positive capability. That is one involving the individual’s ability for decisive action.

However, leadership tasks just as human relationships involve a lot of complex situations. This is even truer in a VUCA world than it was in the past. But it has always been true when a situation involves relationships. That is so because humans are complex beings. An essential detail about complex situations is that due to their unordered nature, right answers can’t be ferreted out. It’s not possible to think our way through, instead, these situations require an approach to probe, sense, and respond.

That’s where the capability to sustain reflective inaction, one that is associated with negative capability becomes useful if not essential. It is a way to allow ourselves to become aware to the situation and open up to all the factors that may influence it. It compares to letting chaos exist and allow the mind to stay with it. Using this capability eases behaviors like waiting, observing, and listening.

It’s a capability that will not make a leader by itself. But negative capability becomes highly effective once connected with a leader’s positive capability. Where positive capability leads to decisive action, negative capability is one that eases the ability to withstand the pressure experienced by leaders to act and perform before knowing how to.

An opportunity to experience the difference between both capabilities finds itself in meditation. Focused meditation reducing the impact of everything one may be aware of on a single object. Whereas open awareness meditation will invite to notice every stimulus experienced.



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