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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Negative Capability and the Capacity to Think in the Present Moment: Some Implications for Leadership Practice

Two themes that are prevalent in the literature on leadership practice are planning for the future and learning from the past. In this 'Leading Questions' piece, we raise the question of whether, in addition, attention needs to be given to a third element that is not well represented in the literature: the leader's capacity to think in the present. We suggest that such thinking requires the capacity to see what is actually going on, in contrast with what was planned for, expected or intended - even when what is actually going on is uncertain or even unknown. In keeping with the theme of this special issue we demonstrate that attending to the present moment is a refrain both ancient and modern, to be found in eastern and western religion and philosophy while having a direct impact on practical modern disciplines, such as psychoanalysis. For example, Wilfred Bion's writings on psychoanalytic theory explore the nature of mental and emotional capacities demanded by this focus on the present moment and its relationship to the development of thought. Using an idea employed by Bion in this context, we suggest that an important dimension of leadership practice is negative capability, which comprises patience and the ability to tolerate frustration and anxiety. This capability can help the leader to retain the capacity to think in the present moment, even in the face of uncertainty. In this context, important dimensions of leadership practice include the ability to embody key thoughts on behalf of an organization and the capacity to contain the impact of the new thinking that can arise in the present moment.