Love and power, holons and process

Graphic from

Last night as part of a leadership retreat we are doing for the the Federation of Community Social Services of BC, we took a bus into Vancouver from Bowen Island to listen to Adam Kahane speak. He spoke last night on the ten laws of love and power (the essence of which you can see amongst these Google results).  There are a couple of new insights from the talk he gave which I appreciate.

Love and power as a complimentary system. Adam’s project is to recover useful definitions of love and power and to see them in a complimentary system.  Seeing these two forces this way creates all kinds of important strategic imperatives in systems – moving from degenerative power to generative love, from degenerative love to generative power.  This is polarity management in it’s core…the ability to keep a system of complimentary poles in a rhythm that oscillates between the upsides of both, but never rests in one or the other.  This dynamic approach to love and power invites us to become skillful at both.  The approach is fundamentally Taoist!

Turtles all the way down. We had a brief exchange about what is going on with the #Occupy movement in terms of this framework.  A question was asked about whether #Occupy represented a love move or a power move.  I said that I saw #Occupy representing a drive to wholeness, a unifying effort to unite the 99% – a love move.  Much of the process evident at the three Occupy camps I have been to has been about inclusion and joining.  Adam saw it differently.  By distinguishing ourselves from the 100%, #Occupy is a power move because it is a drive towards the self-realization of the 99%.  This is fascinating to me because it pointed out that love and power drives operate in different ways, in different scales even within the same process,  This is what makes it so tricky to be in thiss dynamic.  You have to understand at which level your love or power move is working.  In everything we are involved in there are multiple levels of scale and focus (“turtles all the way down“) and skillful leadership is as much about knowing which scale you are at as it is about making the right move.  Also Taoist: moving in line with the times and the context. This idea of acting in scale has come into our work today where we are looking at the living and dying systems model developed by Meg Wheatley, Deborah Frieze and a number of us in Berkana.  Living systems scale, and exhibit similar patterns at each level.

Holons. That leads to the next insight, which is Adam’s use of the concept of holons to describe how systems are influenced by love and power.  I like this a lot, because holons represent a stable structure at every level.  I first was introduced to the idea of holons through Ken Wilber’s work, who developed the concept frost proposed by Arthur Koestler.  Adam’s use of holons to illustrate love and power is very useful.  Love in this case is the holon’s drive for connection and integration and power is the holon’s drive towards self-realization and differentiation.  There can be many drives moving simultaneously, hence my use of the above graphic, which gets the picture across.

Power/love moves in process design. Adam spoke about “moves” that are called for when the power/love dynamic tips too far to ones side or the other.  This comes from Barry Johnson’s work in polarity management, and for process designers, it has important implications.  Using the love/power dynamic, we can make choices about the kinds of processes that we use to bring people together or to create the drive for self-realization.  Adam mused that in process design and facilitation, World Cafe was a good example of a love move (as it tends the group to wholeness based on the fact that there is one questions that the whole group explores) and Open Space Technology as a good example of a power move (as it is dependant on agency and diverse streams of self-realization happening simultaneously).  I though this was a pretty useful observation, and it behooves us as process designers and facilitators to think about this construction in the design choices we make.

Adam’s work on this stuff has legs because it is a very simple concept which becomes immensely complex in practice.  But importantly, it is practice.  Efforts to understand it in theory can be limited.  The dynamic of practice, the complicated roughshod effort to get it right is where the reward is.


  1. Thanks Chris for reminding me of Adam’s book and work – I read it earlier this year… wonderful summary of it: “Adam’s work on this stuff has legs because it is a very simple concept which becomes immensely complex in practice. But importantly, it is practice. Efforts to understand it in theory can be limited. The dynamic of practice, the complicated roughshod effort to get it right is where the reward is.”

  2. thanks, chris!

  3. word on the street’s that you’re planning on doing an ost @ #OWS. wish i could be a fly on the wall for that! will it be livestreamed???

  4. It might be…that is being hosted by Kelly McGowan, my close friend and colleague in NYC, and with whom I co-hosted the Art of Social Justice back in September there.

  5. Chris,
    I’d love to know about this OST at OWS as well Chris. I’m working with Occupy Cafe, Studio Occupy and Occupy4Love and having that filmed to share with other Occupy spaces, would be really important. Sharing of best practices and stories. Loved this entry!