becoming a self in history, becoming a self in my street

Adam Kahane

In September 1991 Adam Kahane, who was then working for Shell, was sent to South Africa to help facilitate a workshop initiated by Professor Pieter le Roux. One year before, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and all the black opposition parties had been legalized. Le Roux worked for the black Left Wing University of the Western Cape and he wanted to organize a scenario project to help the government and the opposition to find strategies to manage this extraordinary transition in South Africa.

Adam began the process by asking the different groups to talk about what might happen, regardless of what each group wanted. The apartheid restrictions had been relaxed and the team was able to work across white-black, establishment-opposition lines. He describes the energy and enthusiasm released by the process, which was supported not only by the formal meetings but also the time spent socializing in between.

Over a series of meetings they eventually came up with four main scenarios, which were used in many different situations to contribute to the creation of a steady, sustainable transition, something which is no less of a challenge in many situations today. This work, which was called the Mont Fleur Project after the place where they had met, became an example for many different forums whose work together serves to help to create what is now called Social Capital.

This event had a profound, life-changing impact on Kahane. He said, ‘This was the first time that I had descended from observing complex problems from above and outside … to engaging right up close with a group of people who were in the middle of working through the solutions.’ He gave up his job at Shell and married Dorothy Boesak, the black community leader co-ordinating the project. He says of that time, ‘In 1993 I resigned from Shell, emigrated to South Africa and married Dorothy. I exchanged the controlled neatness of my Shell, bachelor, London life for the messiness of self-employment in a country undergoing a revolution, with a wife and four teenage stepchildren.’

He then went on to co-found a consultancy to facilitate processes whereby civil society, business and government can solve their toughest problems. He has worked in over fifty different countries. Instead of using violence and force, efforts are made both to listen and to speak in a completely open way. The experiences he and his colleagues have had in this work led Adam to write:

We’ve come to believe that the core capacity needed for accessing the field of the future is presence. We first thought of presence as being fully conscious and aware in the present moment. Then we began to appreciate presence as deep listening, of being open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense. We came to see the importance of letting go of old identities and the need to control… Ultimately we came to see all aspects of presence as leading to a state of ‘letting come’, of consciously participating in a larger field of change. When this happens, the field shifts, and the forces shaping a situation can shift from recreating the past to realizing an emerging future.

Adam Kahane’s colleagues Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers describe this in their book, Presence, Human Purpose and the Field of the Future.

References to works mentioned are on the references page.