“Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led. The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders.” Mary Parker Follett
Dr. Carolan McLarney has explored the remarkable life of Mary Parker Follett since her doctoral days. 2018 is the 150th anniversary of Follett’s birth as well as the 100th anniversary of her book, The New State: Group Organization the Solution of Popular Government. To honour this milestone, Dr. McLarney has graciously agreed to give a series of interviews over the course of 2018 which will highlight her research on Mary Parker Follett. What will surprise you, as it did me: many “cutting edge” concepts we think came from our “modern time” had their origins in the writings of Mary Parker Follett. We invite you to join the discussion over the coming year and welcome your thoughts and comments.
Dr. Carolan McLarney
Mary Parker Follett lived in the United States from 1868 to 1933. A writer, political analyst, social activist, philosopher, lecturer, colleague and friend, she lived in a time when the United States was undergoing great changes resulting from increased urbanization and industrialization. It was not the age of the feminist, but somehow Mary Parker Follett penetrated the inner sanctum of some of the world’s leading organizations (Rowntree’s of England and Dennison’s of the United States to name two). She observed and commented on the workings of these organizations, and from them, she formulated an encompassing theory of leadership.
Mary Parker Follett wrote about leaders and leadership in the early part of the last century. Her work in leadership theory from a historical Organizational Behaviour perspective finds resonance in the theories from 1902 all the way to to-day. There is no single theory which seems to encompass her writings, but rather there are elements scattered throughout the over 3,000 empirical studies on leadership. Mary Parker Follett’s view of leadership can be found in the early literature on Trait Theory, which argues that leaders are born possessing the affinity and characteristics for leadership, to Fielder’s Contingency Theory which focuses on style and control over a situation. She also believed that there were a number of qualities that comprise leadership. In the Essentials of Leadership, she wrote:
“…tenacity, sincerity, fair dealings with all, steadfastness of purpose, depth of conviction, control of temper, tact, steadiness in stormy periods, ability to meet emergencies, power to draw forth and develop latent possibilities of others…” (1933, p. 45)
While Mary Parker Follett believed that these qualities enhanced leadership, she did not accept that these qualities were the only aspect of leadership. She believed that leaders were neither born nor simply created, but rather there exists an element of both in a good leader. Leaders could not be simply identified by just their traits or just their behaviours. Miss Follett felt leadership could be learned and strongly endorsed leadership training. Leadership involved gaining an understanding the organization and management; in other words, she felt that as a successful leader you had to know your job. A good leader knows their place in the organization and “his relation to all the other parts.”(Leader and Expert, 1930)
Mary Parker Follett wrote in The New State: Group Organization the Solution of Popular Government, that a leader can only lead the group from within the group. It is within the group that the leader can come to understand what the group’s goal(s) means to each member of the group. It is within the group that the leader can determine the varying interests of the group members and harmonize any conflicting interests through two-way communication. Only from within can they reconcile these interests to the group’s goal(s).
“…the leader of our neighbourhood group must interpret our experience to us, must see all the different points of view which underlie our daily activities and also their connections, must adjust the varying and often conflicting needs, must lead the group to an understanding of its needs and to a unification of its purpose.“(1918, p. 61)
Mary Parker Follett did not finish her theory with the search for universal behaviours, she broadened her view with the idea that leadership is situationally influenced. Miss Follett understood that leadership depended and changed according to the situation within which the group found themselves.
Dr. Carolan McLarney, Professor
Rowe School of Business
Prior to completing her doctorate, Dr. McLarney held management positions in various companies in the hospital, transportation, and consulting sectors. Her research interests include the interface between small businesses and international business strategy, and the use of strategic alliances to garner success. Dr. McLarney also explores issues relating to board governance, particularly the use of outside directors.
Yvonne Thevenot says
Thank you Dr. McLarney for taking the time to share your thoughts and reflections on Mary Parker Follett’s work… it is this type of dialogue that helps keep really great thinking alive and evolving – bravo!
I agree wholeheartedly, Yvonne!!