S+B: How does the basic dilemma between getting things done (power) and making better connections (love) play itself out in business?
KAHANE: It’s a universal and familiar phenomenon. Many people, consciously or unconsciously, make the mistake of choosing one or the other. Frances Westley, a professor of social innovation at the University of Waterloo, once asked David Culver, the CEO of Alcan, how he had earned his reputation as a great manager. He told her that when he was tempted to be tough, he tried to be compassionate, and when he felt inclined to be compassionate, he tried to be tough. Not many people understand how to keep those drives in such a dynamic balance.
S+B: Are you saying that most people gravitate toward either compassion or toughness?
KAHANE: I’d say 70 percent of the senior people — in business, government, and the nonprofit world — fall into either the power camp or the love camp. Those in the power camp think that compassion and empathy are soft emotions, that they don’t matter in the working world, and that they should be relegated to the home, family, and romance. They see the weak, degenerative side of love — which certainly exists.
But they fall into a trap. The exercise of power without love becomes reckless, abusive, and ultimately counterproductive and fragile. When businesspeople focus relentlessly on finishing the mission, getting on with the job, at the cost of their connection to employees, communities, or the environment, they lose their long-term legitimacy and viability. When I worked on regional development problems in Houston, I had a number of encounters with Ken Lay, then the CEO of Enron, and I saw firsthand the phenomenon of entrepreneurialism without responsibility. There are many Enrons, practicing power without love and suffering less-dramatic versions of the same fate.
But love without power is equally prevalent — and equally dangerous for people trying to accomplish something. It’s just not as widely understood.
S+B: Is it prevalent even in environments like business?
KAHANE: In most businesses, there’s a love camp containing the people who see and stand against the degenerative use of power. I’m often amazed at how many of them there are in companies, often trying to keep that side of themselves hidden. Not long ago, I asked an audience of human resources professionals in a South African bank where they would place themselves. I was surprised that 80 percent of them said they saw themselves in the love camp. I had not realized the extent to which different functions polarize themselves around either power or love — for example, with HR people seeing themselves as the holders of compassion, pushing back against the dominant power culture.
I was like that for several years myself after I became involved in social change work. My gender, age, and upbringing had made me originally more comfortable with power, but Solving Tough Problems was written with the enthusiasm of somebody who just discovered love. After it came out, Shambhala Sun publisher Jim Gimian said, “Adam, you seem to be down on force in this book. I think that’s a fundamental error. Don’t you realize nothing happens without it?”
More specifically, nothing happens without the dirty, nitty-gritty recognition that everyone in a complex problem situation is asking, “What’s in it for me?” I’ve made the mistake of overlooking those interests, and therefore getting stuck. At one tough workshop of South African leaders, my co-facilitator Ishmael Mkhabela turned to me and said: “Adam, [these attendees] are not nuns, they are not priests; they have not taken vows not to have interests. People’s interests are not the problem; it is only a problem when those of one overpower those of others.” We see the same issue come up in climate change work, and in any work on social governance; people try to make the conversation nonpartisan. But you’ve got to let everybody bring up their partisan interests openly, and see what you can do once you know what they are. You’re not just looking out for the good of the whole system. You have to attend to the parts as well, because that’s where the power — the ability to get things done — resides.