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Innovative Thinkers On Collaborative Leadership: Mary Parker Follett

From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate

Community Diversity 300x200 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 Innovative Thinkers on Collaborative Leadership: Mary Parker Follett, 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 Innovative Thinkers on Collaborative Leadership: Mary Parker Follett, with an introduction by Peter Drucker Innovative Thinkers on Collaborative Leadership: Mary Parker Follett, 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. Read more »


John Folk-Williams

I’m John Folk-Williams, the publisher and editor of Cross Collaborate. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a practitioner and writer in the field of public policy collaboration, interest-based negotiation, mediation and the involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. A site like this is itself a collaboration… MORE >

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