Innovative Thinkers on Collaborative Leadership: Mary Parker Follett

Varina Patel –

The ideas of collaborative leadership discussed in the previous post seem quite new, and often appear as part of the “paradigm-shift” toward learning organizations and open government. In fact, one of the most innovative thinkers in this field developed and wrote about all this 80 years ago, from 1918 to the early 1930s. That was Mary Parker Follett, an important figure in her day but neglected for decades thereafter. Only recently has her work started to become known and influential again, but her new audience is still relatively small.

Although she used a different vocabulary, this extraordinary thinker pioneered the concepts of collaborative leadership, integrative negotiation and empowerment and creativity through group interaction. She also drew parallels between biological studies of emergent order in nature and human organization and non-hierarchical management, closely related to the recent popularity of collaborative networks as alternatives to traditional hierarchies of authority.

She saw the integration of differences and continuing interaction of groups with different goals as the essence of creativity and achievement in all walks of life. Only by looking for ways to harmonize interests could new solutions emerge In describing the dynamic of individual and group differences. She introduced the concept of integrative negotiation in an early form in The New State, published in 1918, and refined in her essays of the 1920s.

Her conception of the integrative dynamic of the social process led her to rethink the nature of power and leadership. She emphasized the critical importance of exercising power-with rather than power-over. Leaders needed to be collaborative participants in the creative exchange of ideas among organizational or community members. The rigidity of traditional hierarchical lines of authority needed to be erased to allow full scope to the creative interaction that led to progress.

While she was best known for her work in business management in the 1920s, her underlying concern was to define the group basis for democracy. She championed an idea of citizens working together and learning from each other at the community level. Citizen-based community groups needed to be the foundation of a true democracy, organizing in regional and national groups to provide direction to government. She believed that the current political system used the idea of consent of the people as a means to limit the citizen role to voting and exclude the public from real influence in government decisions.

An excellent starting point for understanding her ideas is Mary Parker Follett Prophet of Management, with an introduction by Peter Drucker, one of Follett’s most influential advocates. As Drucker explains it, her work fell out of favor during the Depression years when the emphasis was on building the power of national governments rather than devolving power to citizens. Rediscovery of her work had to wait for the world to come round to her way of thinking.

The book presents a collection of her best lectures from the 1920s, interspersed with commentary by management experts like Warren Bennis.

Here are a few quotations from her writings of 1918 through 1927 that provide a sense of her ideas about collaborative leadership within the context of the ongoing process of social change.

… What then is the essence of the group process… ? It is an acting and reacting, a single and identical process which brings out differences and integrates them into a unity. The complex reciprocal action, the intricate interweavings of the members of the group, is the social process. (The New State, 1918)

… In that continuous coordinating which constitutes the social process both similarity and difference have a place. Unity is brought about by the reciprocal adaptings of the reactions of individuals, and this reciprocal adapting is based on both agreement and difference. … This tumultuous, irresistible flow of life is our existence: the unity, the common, is but for an instant, it flows on to new differings which adjust themselves anew in fuller, more varied, richer synthesis. The moment when similarity achieves itself as a composite of working, seething forces, it throws out its myriad new differings. The torrent flows into a pool, works, ferments, and then rushes forth until all is again gathered into the new pool of its own unifying.

… There are three main ways of dealing with conflict: domination, compromise and integration. Domination, obviously, is the victory of one side over the other. … [C]ompromise … is the accepted, the approved, way of ending controversy. Yet no one really wants to compromise, because that means a giving up of something. Is there then any other method of ending conflict? There is a way beginning now to be recognized, at least, and even occasionally followed: when two desires are integrated, that means that a solution has been found in which both desires have found a place, that neither side has had to sacrifice anything. (Constructive Conflict, 1925)

… [W]hereas power usually means power-over, the power of some person or group over some other person or group, it is possible to develop the conception of power-with, a jointly developed power, a co-active, not a coercive power. In store of factory I do not think that the management should have power over the workmen, or the workmen over the management.

… Circular behavior is the basis of integration. If your business is so organized that you can influence a co-manager while he is influencing you, so organized that a workman has an opportunity of influencing you as you have of influencing him; if there is an interactive influence going on all the time between you, power-with may be built up. (Power, 1925)

… The leader guides the group and is at the same time himself guided by the group, is always a part of the group. No one can truly lead except from within. One danger of conceiving the leader as outside is that then what ought to be group loyalty will become personal loyalty. When we have a leader within the group these two loyalties can merge.

… [A leader] must be able to lead us to wise decisions, not to impose his own wise decisions upon us. We need leaders, not masters or drivers.
(The New State, 1918)

… [W]e want worked out a relation between leaders and led which will give to each the opportunity to make creative contributions to the situation. …

… Part of the task of the leader is to make others participate in his leadership. The best leader knows how to make his followers actually feel power themselves, not merely acknowledge his power.

Like many of today’s writers, Follett rejected the idea of leadership as the exclusive province of a trained elite who imposed their own vision and purpose while assuming primary decision-making power. For her, the leader ensured that a group was organized to permit the dynamic discovery and harmonizing of the differing ideas of its members. It was a role of designing and supporting the process that could build commitment and allow individuals to share power in influencing creative decisions. It’s unfortunate that such ideas had to wait 80 years before becoming part of mainstream thinking once again.


3 Responses to “ Innovative Thinkers on Collaborative Leadership: Mary Parker Follett ”

  1. This is great John. Thanks for bringing Mary to our attention. “circular behavior is the basis of (business)integration” – I love that quote from Mary’s work. I’ll definitely be checking her work out. Looking back to look ahead!

  2. Hi, Ben –

    Reading her work has always been a great inspiration, and a lot of the practical guidance is as timely today as ever. Unfortunately, Creative Experience is long out of print and can be found at libraries. So far, I haven’t been able to scour it up through Alibris and the other used book sites. There is a MPF Foundation which has the first three chapters online to download – I’ll update the post with that link.

    Let me know what you find most interesting in her work.


  3. […] my collaborative-minded web friend, John Folk-Williams, introduced us to Mary Parker Follett, in this article on his excellent blog Cross Collaborate.  Among the living humans from 1868-1933, her insights […]