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Negative Capabilities: The Powerful Leadership Tool No One Ever Talks About

We’ve all had that uh-oh moment when a situation, problem or issue arises that is so complex, we don’t know what’s really happening, what could happen next and what the hell it all means anyway.

We’ve entered the space of the unknown.

And yeah, it feels really uncomfortable. And maybe a bit scary. Dangerous even.

After all, we’re taught that great leaders have a firm grip on what’s going on so they can react quickly and decisively in times of crisis.

When we sense danger, human beings have a way of slipping into what in the world of somatic coaching we call our conditioned tendencies. We either resist the danger (fight), move away from it (flight) stop dead in our tracks (freeze) or move toward it (appease).

In leadership, these tendencies look like this:


We try to control the situation, often rushing to implement the first solution that comes to mind.


We retreat from the situation, ignore the problem or deny that it’s even happening.


We procrastinate or fall into analysis paralysis, never actually arriving at any solution at all. Think Blockbuster in the 2010's and the Newspaper classifieds industry in the 2000's.


We become resigned to the new situation, maybe even justifying it. This is where the notion of “managing decline” comes from.

Obviously, none of these tendencies are ideal. Luckily, there’s another way.

We can rest in the space of not knowing.


We pause, listen and observe. We find new data sets, new people, new viewpoints and new methodologies. We wait (not procrastinate) for new information and new insights. We hold what we know. And make space for what we don’t.

Way back in 1817, the poet John Keats called the ability to rest in the unknown a “negative capability” which he described as a state where we’re “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Keats would have made a pretty good leadership guru in our time. Because his so-called negative capabilities are anything but negative.

They’re about ending the drama of reactivity and shifting into personal agency. They’re about allowing for what is actually emerging (both internally and externally) rather than for what we hope or believe should be emerging.

Knowing nothing, as it turns out, is incredibly powerful.

As the famous Shunryu Suzuki quote goes, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

So, get curious my friend. Become an explorer.

Think wider. Listen longer. Allow silence. And see what emerges.

Will you be able to rest in the unknown every time a crises arises? No. Sometimes, a leader must react without all the information they need. That’s life.


Just knowing that something new just might be waiting to emerge could change your decision making even during the most urgent times. It might prevent you from falling into your habitual reactions and responses. And that’s something.

So, ask yourself: Can I live in the space of not knowing, even if just for a moment or two?

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