A number of people have observed that the worst conflicts about power tend to occur in idealistic organizations, such as those in the fields of healthcare and education. Maybe this is why. Just when you’re getting to the really tough issues, somebody stops everything by proclaiming, “remember the patients” or “remember the children.” That’s not helpful. Nobody had forgotten the patients and the children, but these statements obscure the necessary, difficult work of dealing with particular interests.
S+B: Why do people find it so difficult to keep both power and love in mind?
KAHANE: Because of deeply held beliefs. As a power person, I tend to hesitate to open myself up because I think if I do, I’ll get hurt. And I know a lot of people in the love camp who say, “Well, I don’t want to assert myself because I think I’ll hurt someone.”
A fair number of people — maybe 10 to 30 percent of those in a typical company — are skillful at both. Many of the people I admire balance the two imperatives, and all of us can become more conscious of it and consistent at it. Wendy Palmer, an aikido expert whom I met on the faculty at Alia, has a good way of thinking about this. “In a no-stress situation,” she says, “we can handle both power and love. But under stress, the power people revert to their comfort zone and become reckless and abusive, and the love people revert to theirs and become sentimental and anemic.” In one very high-stress project I facilitated, the Bhavishya Alliance addressing child malnutrition in India, I ended up being reckless and abusive on some days and sentimental and anemic on others. This was confusing to other people and an unhelpful leadership stance.
Organizations also have difficulties maintaining this balance. Aren’t there organizations that, under stress, revert to power or revert to love? Aren’t there societies that do the same? What’s the comfort zone of the social system?
S+B: Does an example come to mind of truly skillful practice?
KAHANE: Yes, there are many examples. They include leaders who are not afraid of power; who revel in it. But they also have allegiance to the common good, larger than their own interests or anyone else’s.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher, but he spent 90 percent of his time on power questions — like figuring out the key people involved in a march, who should be positioned where, whom to pressure to do what. Betty Sue Flowers, the former director of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s library, introduced me to Robert Caro’s biography Master of the Senate [Knopf, 2002]. It’s the amazing story of the passage of civil rights legislation in the United States. Johnson understood power and compassion intimately. He could talk for hours about every single senator — his likes and dislikes, how to twist his arm, whether to call him at his wife’s or mistress’s house. He knew how to work with their interests. But he also never lost his drive to accomplish his goal of achieving civil rights legislation, a drive grounded in personal compassion and based in part on some early experiences with Hispanic schoolchildren. There were times when he grabbed people by their lapels in the Senate cloakroom and literally poked his fingers through their buttonholes to keep a hold on them so that he could make a point.
S+B: How does one become accomplished at this balance?
KAHANE: You have to deliberately practice both: power and love, power and love, like walking with your left foot and then your right, over and over.