Research & Theory at the Developing Leadership Capacity Conference 2022

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The Bristol Leadership and Change Centre is hosting the 12th Developing Leadership Capacity Conference (DLCC) on the 12 and 13 July 2022 with some fascinating contributions based around the theme:

‘Leading to Care – Foregrounding Health and Well-being in Leadership Development and Education’.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing some of the abstracts from the contributors to give you an idea of the depth and variety of sessions that are available to attend online over the two-day conference. Register for the free DLCC conference HERE

Research & Theory from 13:00 – 14:30 on Tuesday 12 July 2022

With some amendments to the agenda, this Research & Theory presentation has been moved into the 13:00 streamed session.

The place of Negative Capability in Caring Leadership Practice

Authors: Charlotte von Bülow and Peter Simpson, UWE Bristol

The poet, Keats, described Negative Capability, as when a person ‘is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’ (Gittings, 1970, p.43). We interpret this as a way of being that is accessible to us when we let go of our attachments to thinking, feeling, and doing. In this presentation we consider self-care in leadership practice at the level of being and the deeper links with Negative Capability.

We draw upon ancient traditions of exercises for the inner work of self-care. For example, self-examination was a practice deeply embedded in the early cultures of India and Egypt, contributing to an early form of life-long learning, giving a person a sense of meaning and direction in life (Hadot, 2004). Indicating why this is worthy of particular attention in relation to Negative Capability, Hadot (1995, p.127) makes clear that these traditions were concerned not merely with the development of the individual as a thinking, doing, and feeling subject, but comprises a range of developmental exercises that ‘have as their goal… the metamorphosis of our being.’

We also draw upon Foucault’s (1997) related review of the ancient practices of ‘Care of the Self’ (heautou epimeleisthai) and recent literature has indicated its potential relevance to organisation studies (see Raffsnøe, Mennicken, & Miller, 2019) and leadership practice (Bülow & Simpson, 2020; Tomkins, 2020). Reminiscent of Keats’ deep reflections throughout his letters, this is a practice of philosophical inquiry into self.

Hadot (1995, p. 84) categorises the ancient exercises as meditations, ‘remembrances of good things’, intellectual exercises (e.g., reading, listening, research, and investigation), and more active exercises (e.g., self-mastery, accomplishment of duties, and indifference to indifferent things). These themes have emerged in recent literature, including Mirvis (2008), who argues, 

… experiences that stimulate introspection and include time and space for ‘inner work,’ whether in the forms of reflection, meditation, prayer, or journaling, can all deepen one’s sense-of-self. (2008, p. 175) 

This list might suggest practices that pander to the solipsistic concerns of some modern approaches to personal and professional development (Tomkins and Ulus, 2015). On the contrary, Foucault is clear that this practice is not selfish and ‘is not an exercise in solitude, but a true social practice’ (1990, p. 51). Hadot states that these developmental practices also ‘have as their goal the transformation of our vision of the world…’ (Hadot 1995, p. 127) – a theme that relates to a leadership practice not of defining purpose but of being open to an emerging sense of purpose. A transformation can occur not only at the level of being but also in the way in which things are seen. The exercises are designed to give a new perspective on the world and to develop a capacity for a heightened quality of attention that is inherently social: ‘the work of oneself on oneself and communication with others are linked together’ (Foucault, 1990, p. 51). 

There are several related experiential learning processes that have seen something of a renaissance in recent years (Hay & Samra-Fredericks, 2019; Purser & Milillo, 2015). However, the interpretation of these practices and the motivation for their use is often linked to short-term outcomes or guided by a ‘blind trust in an exclusively economic view of business and the world’ (Colby et al., 2011, p. 29). This tends to foster a remedial focus at the level of need (e.g., stress management, career development, problem resolution). Whilst important as aspects of self-care, Negative Capability offers the potential for a developmental transformation in our vision of the world and at the level of our being.


Bülow, C.v. & Simpson, P. (2022) Negative Capability in Leadership Practice: Implications for Working in Uncertaity. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Bülow, C.v. & Simpson, P. (2020) ‘Negative Capability and the Care of the Self’, in Tomkins, L. (ed) Paradoxes of Leadership and Care: Critical and Philosophical Reflection, New Horizons in Leadership Series, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Colby, A., Ehrlich, T., Sullivan, B., & Dolle, J. (2011). Rethinking undergraduate business education: Liberal learning for the profession. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass 

Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality, Vol. 3: The care of the self (R. Hurley trans.). London: Penguin.   

Foucault, M. (1997) The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom, in P. Rabinow (Ed.) Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth. Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 (R. Hurley trans.) (pp. 281-301). London: Penguin 

Gittings, R. (1970) Letters of John Keats. Oxford: OUP. 

Hay, A. & Samra-Fredericks, D. (2019) Bringing the Heart and Soul Back in: Collaborative Inquiry and the DBA, Academy of Management Learning & Education, 18 (1), 59-80 

Hadot, P. (1995) Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell 

Hadot, P. (2004). What Is Ancient Philosophy? Harvard University Press 

Mirvis, P. (2008) Executive Development Through Consciousness-Raising Experiences. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 7(2), 173–188 

Purser, R.E. and Milillo, J. (2015) Mindfulness Revisited: A Buddhist-Based Conceptualization, Journal of Management Inquiry, 24 (1), 3–24 

Raffsnøe, S., Mennicken, A, & Miller, P. (2019) The Foucault Effect in Organization Studies, Organization Studies, 40(2), 155–182 

Tomkins, L. (2020). Autoethnography through the Prism of Foucault’s Care of the Self. In: Herrmann, Andrew (Ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Organizational Autoethnography. Routledge.  

Tomkins, L. & Ulus, E. (2015) Is Narcissism Undermining Critical Reflection in our Business Schools? Academy of Management Learning & Education, 14 (4), 595-606 

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