Note: I first encountered the notion of becoming dexterous in the activity of power and love from Adam Kahane’s book Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change. He drew inspiration from Martin Luther King.
“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change…. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified with the resignation of power and power with the denial of love. Now we’ve got to get this thing right. What [we need to realize is] that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Where do we go from here?”
I came across Kahane’s outlining of the need for facilitators and leaders to balance power and love when I was still a maturing practitioner in the fields of dialogue, conflict resolution, and leadership development. The simplicity of this polarity-that-must-not-be-a-polarity provoked the kind of “aha” that is exhaled when a cognitive frame slips easily into some slot of experiential being. While Kahane builds his developmental model for the integration of power and love with a kinetic metaphor of movement – a narrative development from falling, through stumbling, walking, and culminating with the intensely hopeful phrase of “stepping forward” – I absorbed his and MLK’s insight in terms of language. My dialogue and conflict resolution work was fundamentally about communication and a colleague used the phrase “bilingual in the languages of power and love” and that phrase found its perfect slot in my being of words. Now, as I have shifted into being a writer, a new kind of trader in words, I find myself viewing and understanding the balancing of power and love as a whole body effort of kinetic, emotional, and verbal actions (and stillness) in relation to others.
When I first encountered it, the beauty of King-to-Kahane’s model of power and love was immediately relevant to every relationship in my life, every situation in which I made choices about assertion and reception, assertion and empathy. It gave me permission to be, consciously and often delightedly, both powerful and loving: as a parent, a spouse, a friend, a colleague, a boss, a subordinate. In some cases, the choices and balance were easier and more obvious than in others. Looking beyond myself, looking for ambidexterity with power and love in our leaders, I found that the larger the scale, the more diffuse and tertiary the relationships, the higher the stakes in terms of gain and loss, the more complicated and difficult the balance. In fact, for leaders of large, complex entities, it is not just one balance, it is many little (often counteracting) balances, except in the core of the single person. The greatest leaders develop and maintain that ambidexterity deep within themselves despite inevitable imbalances in particular relationships and actions.
Of course, I’m thinking and writing about this because we are in the midst of a crucial election in which we will choose a leader whose actions will shape the lives of millions. The European Union is already struggling with the desperation and pathos of numerous refugees, the aggressive nativism of longtime residents, and the shape-shifting enmity of diversely disaffected peoples who are recruited, or drawn by, a reactionary cult that calls itself Islamic. In this context, today’s March 22, 2016 attacks in Brussels heighten the will to power in both ordinary people and in leaders. More than ever “love” feels anemic and “power” risks abuse and reckless escalation. As people closer to us – in distance and cultural formation – are killed cruelly, those who have been similarly killed in Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, so many elsewheres, become even more faceless, and yet responses – balancing power and love – to any one of these acts of violence must be articulated with responses – balancing power and love – to all the other places and people affected by related acts of violence. In the midst of global outrage and the lengthening grief of real people, I find myself asking: are European leaders marshaling their whole bodies and full brains (brain stem, limbic brain, cerebral cortex) for ambidexterity with power and love?
And what can we do to allow and encourage our own leaders, our not-too-distantly-to-be-new-President, to do the same?