A couple of weeks ago we went to see Adam Kahane talk about his new book – Power and Love. The talk and the book both helped shed light on aspects of leadership and social change that to some extent have not been explicit in our work. I wouldn’t say we weren’t conscious of them already, but his depth of research and experience helped solidify our understanding and articulate the important interplay between power and love.
Kahane uses definitions of power and love from theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich:
Tillich defines power as “the drive of everything living to realize itself, with increasing intensity and extensity.” So power in this sense is the drive to achieve one’s purpose, to get one’s job done, to grow. He defines love as “the drive towards the unity of the separated.” So love in this sense is the drive to reconnect and make whole that which has become or appears fragmented. (Power and Love, p. 2)
Central to the book is the idea that these conceptualizations of power and love both have two sides – a generative side and a degenerative side. He looks to Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose doctoral studies focused on Tillich’s work): “Power without love is reckless and abusive,” King said, “and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” (Power and Love, p. 8).
The point is we cannot choose power or love, we must choose both – generative love must come with power and generative power must come with love.
The implications for sustainability work - for creating positive social change - are many and far-reaching. Too often elements of the movement are dominated by degenerative power (e.g. obstructive regulation or heavy-handed guilt tactics), and probably more often, by degenerative love (e.g. “save the whales,” “think of the children,” “why can’t we all just get along?!?”).
We’ve always tried to avoid both in our work, and for me, that is at the heart of why Strategic Sustainable Development (SSD) is such a compelling approach. It recognizes the complex current reality - with entrenched power structures led by dominate corporations and rich nations - and works to evolve it in ways that create a sustainable future as smoothly as possible. It recognizes the power of our institutions, as well as the love necessary to foster cooperation, alignment and movement towards a sustainable future. It employs a rigorous, scientific framework for what sustainability means, in conjunction with the tenants of organizational learning necessary to engage the leadership of all types of people needed to create a sustainable society.
The suite of examples from Kahane’s work with Shell, Generon, Reos, and SoL on projects all over the world - Peace and Reconciliation in South Africa, climate change in Canada, political stability in the Philippines, child nutrition in India, national visioning in Israel, and the Sustainable Food Lab across many countries - illustrate how complex challenges cannot be “solved” with any sort of prescription. The ultimate of these challenges - the sustainability challenge - which embodies each of these and many more, is of course no exception.
That is why SSD uses a principle-based definition of sustainability. There is no roadmap or path to sustainability - the system is too complex with too many variables for us to know exactly what a sustainable future will look like. But we do understand enough about our system - humanity living the biosphere - to know what a sustainability society must be in principle; sort of a “true north” towards which we know we need to head before it is too late to avoid wholesale collapse of ecosystems and social systems. In this sense, we don’t have a map, but we have a compass that can and must guide us in all of our personal and professional decisions. In doing so, we create a sustainable future step by step.
Kahane credits fellow Reos Partner Jeff Barnum in pointing out that “creating something new in the world… requires us, not to plan it all out from the beginning, but rather to step forward, to act, to reflect on the results of our action, and then to take our next step” (Power and Love, p. 136). He also quotes peace activist Ana Teresa Bernal, with whom he worked in Columbia, and who said: “It’s like that poem of Antonio Machado: ‘Walker, there is no path. The path is made by walking’” (Power and Love, p. 140).
I agree this is the only way to effectively lead in complex systems, and would add that having a compass for the “true north” of sustainability - not prescriptive specifics, but generic principles - is necessary for providing sufficient context and orientation for walking that path in as strategic and effective a way as possible.