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(originally published by Booz & Company)


How to Balance Power and Love

Scenario planning and social change expert Adam Kahane suggests that to master large and difficult challenges, leaders need to learn to act and empathize simultaneously.

Adam Kahane’s book Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change (Berrett-Koehler, 2010) opens with a quote from one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speeches, his last presidential speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Power without love,” said King, “is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

This is a concept that business leaders need to understand, because in times of crisis (and afterward), the people of an enterprise are put under a great deal of stress. Many people in major corporations today are still wondering if they will lose their jobs. A system that follows only the impulses of compassion and solidarity (which Kahane calls love) will lose its competitiveness; a system that follows only the impulses of resolve and purposefulness (which he calls power) will sacrifice its people heedlessly and risk its capability for growth and recovery. A mix of power and love, however, becomes a stance that a leader can hold, and this stance may, in the end, be the single most important factor in enabling a leader to accomplish great things.

Kahane is a partner in the small global consulting firm Reos Partners. He has a background in both business and the not-for-profit world, generally in leading multi-stakeholder groups as they work together on complex, intractable problems. For example, he has led projects involving warring Israeli and Palestinian factions, siloed organizations in the global food system, and antagonistic Canadian stakeholders wrestling with climate change. Originally trained as a physicist, economist, and energy policy expert, he worked for years at Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s renowned group planning department — the part of the company that developed much of the current-day practice of scenario planning. In 1991, Kahane was recruited to facilitate a seemingly quixotic conversation among 22 representatives of the diverse multiracial factions involved in the transition away from apartheid in South Africa: If they were going to make this epoch-defining move peacefully, how would they organize the economy? The storylines they developed are known today as the Mont Fleur Scenarios (named after the conference center in Cape Town where the discussions took place in 1991 and 1992). One of them, “flight of the flamingoes,” depicted all parts of the population gradually rising together in mutual economic advancement. This became a core theme of the economic policy of Nelson Mandela’s government. Kahane’s first book, Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities (Berrett-Koehler, 2004), recounts the stories of Mont Fleur and other similar efforts around the world, both successes and failures.

Despite the success of his South African efforts, many participants at Mont Fleur, and in the discussions that followed, found the premise of basing policy on harmony naive. As one African National Congress leader put it, “The only birds that matter here are [not ostriches and flamingoes but] hawks and sparrows!” It turned out that love-oriented solutions are almost impossible to sustain in the predatory atmosphere of any political or competitive power structure. To really make change happen, you need to balance love and power. During the following years, Kahane came to recognize the tension underlying this reality, and to develop some ways to resolve it. That is the basis of the courses he teaches on social change — for example, at the Alia Institute’s annual summer Authentic Leadership in Action program, where he and I are both on the faculty. Kahane sat down with me at last year’s institute, in June 2010 in Halifax, Nova Scotia; he is repeating the course this summer, at the 2011 Alia Institute in Columbus, Ohio.

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