Book Review - Power and Love: A theory and practice for social change

Have you ever wondered why some change efforts – whether they are within an organisational or social context – stumble, or even fall over? Or, why some efforts to enable or implement a socially focused initiative result in the people involved is this ‘good work’ clashing in ways that jeopardise the very intention of the initiative. Come to think of it, have you ever wondered why some of your own best intentions to transform your life and leadership have resulted in you maintaining your own inner status-quo?

In his latest book, Power and Love: A theory and practice of social transformation, Adam Kahane, explores why this occurs in individuals, groups and in large-scale social change initiatives. By way of context, Adam Kahane is a recognised international expert and practitioner in the exploration and implementation of transformative social change. He is formerly the head of the strategy group for Royal Dutch Shell where he was responsible for identifying and scenario-planning the possible social-political-environmental contexts the company might find itself in.

In this role at Royal Dutch Shell he was invited by the then opposition leaders of South African to develop a strategy for effecting the transition away from apartheid. He subsequently resigned from Royal Dutch Shell to move to South Africa and become a key facilitator in what was to emerge as the Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise, a large-scale social engagement initiative to evolve a prosperous future for the rich social and cultural tapestry of the country.

Anyway, back to Adam Kahane’s latest offering on the enablers (and disablers) of large-scale social change: Power and Love. Drawing on the work of theologian and philosopher, Paul Tillich, Kahane defines Power as, “the drive of everything living to realise itself, with increasing intensity and extensity.” Put another way, it is one’s drive to achieve one’s purpose, to self-actualise. Love is defined as, “the drive towards the unity of the separated.” In other words, love is the impulse to reconnect or make whole that which has become separated.

Kahane further distinguishes each dynamic force of social change as coming in two forms. He describes generative power as providing ‘power to’ another in service of him/her/they evolving and transforming towards self-actualisation. Conversely degenerative power is described as ‘power over’ or the forcing or maintaining of oppression over others in ways that result in the reduction of an individual or community’s capacity to heal.

Kahane argues that all power commences generatively, but it is the absence of love (specifically, generative love) that results in power becoming a negative force. Kahane describes generative love as an intentional disposition towards another and a drive to (re)-unite via a focus on relationship and connection. The opposing force of degenerative love is described as ‘sentimental and anaemic’, resulting in the already powerful acting recklessly and abusively.

Generative power cannot exist without generative love. However, as Kahane describes, Power and Love are a dilemma: They cannot co-exist at the same time. And this is why many change efforts fall short, or fail. Through a rich array of personal and professional examples of large-scale social change efforts he has guided to success – or failure – Kahane describes the dynamic balance between Power and Love. And he even uses the metaphor of the Scarecrow from The Wizard Of Oz.

If you remember, the Scarecrow wanted a brain so that he could understand the workings of the world. He wanted to self-actualise. As he picked himself off the pole holding him upright, he stumbles and falls over. Kahane talks about how he has ‘fallen over’ many a time in undertaking social change initiatives when he (and those around him) only relied on Power or Love to drive the change process. In Kahane’s experience, the presence of one ‘force’ in the absence of the other results in it becoming degenerative and the initiative of focus becomes toxic to those involved.

But Kahane, like the Scarecrow, learnt form his early experience. As the Scarecrow continued to pick himself up he began to stumble more, lurching one direction and then the other, and fall less. The dynamic of Love and Power is like this too; an over-reliance of one force over the other results in us ‘stumbling’ through change and transformation. We may ultimately traverse the change journey, but it will be done so in fits-and-starts, with us heading down many a blind alley, and with us experiencing a degree of unnecessary suffering.

As Kahane discovered, Power and Love is a dynamic balance, just like walking … and running. The gentle flow between generative power and generative love during the journey transformation results in the full power and potency of large-scale social change becoming realised for those that need it most. The Scarecrow realised this in his journey – it was by showed generative love to his fellow travellers along the ‘yellow-brick-road’ that he received his ‘brain’, his generative power.

Kahane is a powerful story-teller and an experienced practitioner of the ‘inner workings’ of sustained social-change. This book is a wonderful read full of real world examples of the struggles and triumphs of social change and a timely reminder of the importance of leading from one’s purpose and doing so with compassion.