Before Tom Peters, before Peter Drucker, we had Mary Parker Follett

Mary Parker Follett

What year do you think this quote is from?

There are three ways of dealing with difference: domination, compromise, and integration. By domination only one side gets what it wants; by compromise neither side gets what it wants; by integration we find a way by which both sides may get what they wish.

How about this one?

It has often been thought in the past… that I need be concerned only with doing my part well. It has been taken as self-evident, as a mere matter of arithmetic like 2 and 2 making 4, that if everyone does his best, then all will go well. But one of the most interesting things in the world is that this is not true, although on the face of it it may seem indisputable. Collective responsibility is not something you get by adding up one by one all the different responsibilities. Collective responsibility is not a matter of adding but of interweaving, a matter of the reciprocal modification brought about by the interweaving. It is not a matter of aggregation but of integration.


But there is following. Leader and followers are both following the invisible leader – the common purpose. The best executives put this common purpose clearly before their group. While leadership depends on depth of conviction and the power coming therefrom, there must also be the ability to share that conviction with others, the ability to make purpose articulate. And then that common purpose becomes the leader. And I believe that we are coming more and more to act, whatever our theories, on our faith in the power of this invisible leader. Loyalty to the invisible leader gives us the strongest possible bond of union, establishes a sympathy which is not a sentimental but a dynamic sympathy.

Mary Parker Follett

It all sounds pretty contemporary, doesn’t it?

So does this:

You cannot coordinate purpose without developing purpose, it is part of the same process. Some people want to give workmen a share in carrying out the purpose of the plant and do not see that it involves a share in creating the purpose of the plant. A noted teacher of ethics tells us, “A citizen is one who helps to realize the purpose for which this nation exists.” The citizen must also help to make the purpose.

Well, they’re all quotes from Mary Parker Follett – and she said these things in the 1920s. (see Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management for more).

But she sounds a whole lot like Tom Peters:

Tom Peters bascs

And before him, Peter Drucker, Warren Bennis, Douglas McGregor and many others. As Warren Bennis said about Follett’s Essentials of Leadership:

Just about everything written today about leadership and organizations comes from Mary Parker Follett’s writing and lectures.

This raises two questions. First, if her thinking is so foundational, why isn’t Mary Parker Follett more widely known?

In a good review of a collection of Follett’s writing, Barbara Presley Noble evaluates several possible reasons, including sexism and lack of a formal position of power, then concludes:

And most persuasively, Mr. Drucker and Ms. Kanter both argue that an ideology emphasizing cooperation, negotiation, “constructive conflict” and consensus-making may simply have been out of sync with a world that was either prewar, at war or postwar during much of Miss Follett’s professional life. Politically, the 1930’s and 40’s “were dominated by men and creed that knew the proper use of conflict was to conquer,” Mr. Drucker writes.

Miss Follett never stooped to conquer, believing instead in her more optimistic view of human nature.

While her language is a bit dated (for obvious reasons!), her thinking is still essential. And well worth checking out.

The second question is even bigger: if we’ve been talking about purpose, and inclusivity, and culture, and people first for nearly one hundred years now, why aren’t these ideas more widely accepted in management? After all, as Peters says, it’s not rocket science.

Here’s the key: It’s simple, but not easy.

It’s not easy to practice inclusive management. For example, it’s hard to act this way when everyone else acts hierarchically. Just a few years after Follett was in her prime, John Maynard Keynes said:

Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.

There’s plenty of evidence that inclusive management outperforms conventional approaches, but for some reason, people first and all its implications are still unconventional.

We need to fight through this. Inclusive organisations are better on nearly every performance metric you care to measure –  it’s a demonstrably better way to manage. Let’s stop failing conventionally. Wouldn’t you rather start succeeding? We’ve known for one hundred years how to do this – let’s start listening to Mary Parker Follett.

Student and teacher of innovation – University of Queensland Business School – links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “Before Tom Peters, before Peter Drucker, we had Mary Parker Follett

  1. I think some onus falls on the “followers” too: in my view one essential component of inclusive management is for everyone to take accountability of the shared purpose rather than waiting to be told/ given direction.