Mary Parker Follet

2011 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

John Adair

Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) was an extraordinary thinker and synthesizer of ideas. With her prescient approach to leadership, management, and human relations, "she delighted in challenging distinguished academics to stretch beyond disciplinary boundaries."1 One of the first women to ever be invited to speak at the London School of Economics, she also consulted with the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization. And, while the years between the height of her productivity and the present did not always provide fertile ground for her ideas, today, 115 years after the publication of her first book, a wide variety of disciplinary lines of inquiry and organizational traditions look to her as a foundational figure. As Warren Bennis points out, "Just about everything written today about leadership and organizations comes from Mary Parker Follett's writings and lectures."2

Follett graduated summa cum laude from Radcliffe in 1898 and published her first book, The Speaker of the House of Representatives, based on research she had conducted as a student. While several of her contemporaries "chastised her—an inexperienced woman—for daring to speak on contemporary political matters," the book was favorably received by many as a brilliant and insightful analysis.3

Follett's strong desire to "make something of herself" led to her post-graduate work in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.4 Her passion for the development of citizenship and community organizing matured during her time with immigrant and working class communities and was articulated in her second book, The New State. The book, which brings together her personal experiences and her "academic acumen as a student of democratic theory," has since been recognized as "an American classic of participatory democracy."5 The appendix to the book is also credited with being one of the earliest pieces of scholarly writing in the U.S. on the importance and value of adult and continuing education.6

Beginning in the 1920s, Follett turned her mind to management and leadership. Her last book, Creative Experience, was the result of this focus and, in many ways, applied the ideas she had developed with respect to communities to organizations. Creative Experience is also where she expressed her, radical at the time, circular theory of power, a theory which emphasizes win-win solutions in the approach to conflict resolution and the importance of getting people to cooperate.

1, 3, 4. Tonn, J. (2003). Mary P. Follett: Creating Democracy, Transforming Management. New Haven, CT: Yale U.P. pps. 2, 265, 117.
2. Graham, P. (1995). Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press. p. 178.
5. Barber, Benjamin R. (1998) "Mary Parker Follett as Democratic Hero." In Follett, The New State. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University. p. xv
6. Stewart, D. W. (1987) Adult Learning in America: Eduard Lindeman and His Agenda for Lifelong Education, Malabar, Fl.: Robert E. Krieger.