Have you got the courage not to make decisions? How coping with uncertainty makes you a better combat leader.

Classic leadership attributes are generally described and manifested through work and achievement. The good leader thus makes good decisions. However, the ability to accept not knowing what the right decision is and to not make decisions is just as important for the good leader. The concept is called negative capability.


An open mind is crucial for thinking

The British poet John Keats was the first to use the term negative capability. In a letter to his brother in 1817 we wrote:

”I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason ”

For Keats the open mind was crucial for being able to create his art.


Positive and negative capability

In 2002 the British professor Robert French defined the concepts of positive and negative capability. His main arguments are that the environment and the foundation the leader must base his decisions on are often insecure. He still has to make decisions with potentially large consequences and he has to know when not making a decision is right.

In French’s terms accepting not knowing is just as important as knowing and deciding. Negative capability is as important as the positive.

Positive capability

  • What do we know?
  • How much can we accomplish?
  • How fast can we reach a decision?

Negative capability

  • What do we not know?
  • Problem solving starts with all options open
  • Accepts a state of not knowing and not deciding

Decision making is knowing if to decide, then when and what to decide.
American Field Manual (FM 101-5)


Train your leaders to thrive in uncertainty

A combat leader will not have overview of the enemy’s actions. Pinned down and under fire he might not even be able to grasp all aspects of his own unit’s actions. However, he still has to act.


Develop your own and your sub unit leaders’ negative capability

Prior to my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan I encouraged my section commanders to act and make decisions amidst uncertainty. Instead of giving them answers and orders when they felt insecure I tried to ask questions in return, encouraging them to make a decision of their own. Initially I was satisfied when they made decisions within their own unit. Later I began to demand suggestions for my own and the entire platoon’s actions as well.

It trained my section commanders’ negative capability; and delegating authority sure trained my own as well.


A leader’s negative capability creates creative solutions

Creativeness spreads in organizations whose leaders display negative capability. Workers in such organizations will feel safe making suggestions that are outside the normal box. How else can a rifleman in Afghanistan come up with the idea of building a raft in the middle of a desert?


Say goodbye to the no faults mindset

To be able to think innovatively you have to say goodbye to the no faults mindset. Failures are opportunities to learn! If you on the other hand practise a culture where you use every chance to find and point out shortfalls, you will end up with a sick deviation of negative capability; a culture where your leaders do not make decisions or take on responsibility for fear of punishment. To decide not to act and to embrace uncertainty characterises negative capability but  not deciding, denying there is a problem, underestimating it or defending oneself against uncertainty is not negative capability: that is poor leadership.


Negative space creates harmony

Vase or faces?

Vase or faces?

In art there is concept called negative space. In a picture it is the empty space between the object and the frame. Negative space is what makes a picture, a room or a garden look in harmony and balance. The lawn around the rose bed is what makes the rose bed stand out. Neither the lawn nor the rose bed is a garden in itself. It is only a garden in context.

The use of negative space is probably best known from the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin’s vase. Depending on what you label as the negative space you will either see a vase or two heads.


Negative capability cannot stand alone

As the presence of negative space creates harmony in art the presence of negative capability creates harmony in leadership. However, negative capability is not enough: the combat leader must be able to make decisions, tough decisions with the risk of death for the leader himself and his unit.

The art in leadership is thus balancing negative and positive capability.


Train your own negative capability

Are you already training your own negative ability? One question has helped me to think more outside the box and thereby develop my own negative capability. Simply ask:

What is the worst possible outcome?

Often, my own imagined fears of the consequences have gone far beyond the real consequences. I have found the question particularly helpful in training. The worst possible outcome is often that I will know that a particular method did not work as intended or that it needs adjustment.

To innovate we have to try new approaches to both known and new problems. We have to make decisions but we also have to acknowledge when postponing or not deciding is a better option.

I have no idea on how to balance your leadership. Every day I struggle to balance my own.

Article picture: expertinfantry on Flickr

4 thoughts on “Have you got the courage not to make decisions? How coping with uncertainty makes you a better combat leader.

  1. Jani Muhlestein

    An excellent point of view. And it’s also one that is important not only for combat, but life as well. Especially a different type of combat: raising children.

    My great-grandmother, Malvina Christina Carlotta Hansina Hansen would agree most heartily. As does her great-granddaughter, ie., me.

    Sometimes the ability to wait to decide is an exceptionally important ability. There are times whe no decision is really possible until things change. Or until you get further input from somebody who may have a better perspective on the situation. And yes, failure is always a possible outcome to any situation, sadly. You have to be able to expect that, and still function.

    1. Søren Sjøgren Post author

      Thanks for your comment Jani. Negative capability is certainly important in raising children as well. I guess it important in every situation where you are trying to influence others. If you always act and always decide you will encourage the people around you not to decide for themselves.

    1. Søren Sjøgren Post author

      Hi Karin,

      I am glad you found the article inspicering. The G+ post you’ve linked to is definitely worth reading. Negative capability is not an objective in it self. It has to go hand in hand with the ability to commit and take decisive action when needed.



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