Research Corner: The Legacy of Mary Parker Follett

Pamela Chan (

Training for the new democracy must be from the cradle – through nursery, school and play […] through every activity of our life. […]  When we change our ideas of the relation of the individual to society, our whole system of education changes.  

Forty years before John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech, Mary Parker Follett wrote that “the question which the state must always be trying to answer is how it can do more for its members at the same time that it is stimulating them to do more for themselves.  No, more than this, doing more for them must take the form of their doing more for themselves.”  (Follett, 1918, p. 237)

Mary Follett is considered to be one of the early leaders in the area of business management, and her influence on the politicians, academics, educators and business people of her day was far reaching. Yet ten years after her death, in 1933, she had been all but forgotten. This was particularly the case in the United States, where her ideas were kept alive in the business classes at Harvard University.  In England a few academics still revered her, and in 1941 Metcalf and Urwick published her papers in a book entitled “Dynamic Administration”.  In the 1950s Mary P. Follett and W. Edwards Deming were the two key influences in the revival of Japanese industry.  An association dedicated to her work exists in Japan to this day.  The interest of the Japanese, with their own cultural context of amae, or mutual relationships, is not surprising.  Follett saw circular behaviour as the basis for an integrated relationship in business.  She believed that control over others brought disastrous results and that it would be better if each worker could influence the other at the same time.  Interest in her work has been increasing recently; however, copies of her original writings are still hard to come by.  As a renewed interest in her work increases, the academic and business worlds are eagerly awaiting the imminent publication of new books about her life and ideas.  

Mary Follett’s influence in the academic and political worlds was strong from the start of her academic career.  Follett was born into an upper middle class Quaker family in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1868.  She had access to the best education available to women in her day and eventually attended university at Radcliffe College, when it was still known as The Harvard Annexe for Women.  There she studied economics, government and philosophy.  Part of her undergraduate experience was also spent in England at Newnham College, Cambridge.  At Newnham she read history, law and political science.  Her father died when she was young, and her mother was ill throughout her undergraduate years.  Due to the efforts required to look after her mother, she graduated summa cum laude from her undergraduate degree at age 30.  Not long after her graduation, she published her thesis as her first book, entitled “The Speaker of the House of Representatives”.  It was well respected at the time by academics and politicians, and received an enthusiastic review from Theodore Roosevelt.  It is still considered to be one of the best written works looking at examples of good practice in Congress.  In 1924 she published her second book entitled “Creative Experience”.

One of Follett’s most important legacies comes from her work as a social worker.  After graduating from college she worked in the Roxbury neighbourhood of Boston. Over the course of a decade she developed the idea of the community center – that schools can be used after hours for recreational and vocational use.  Where schools were not available, community centers were built.  Such an idea is taken for granted now, but it was a revolutionary concept in the early 20th century.  Her experience working in this area taught her a lot about notions of democracy and led her to write more for a wider audience – particularly the business world.  She felt that good practice amongst business people would have a significant impact on other institutions.  Looking at the current widespread influence of business ideas in non-business settings, such as Covey’s “Seven Principles”, it can be seen that her opinion has stood the test of time.

In the Appendix of her first novel, “The New State”, Follett outlines her ideas on education – ideas that are particularly relevant today as the Canadian and American governments and Departments of Education look at introducing renewed interest in citizenship into schools.

Training for the new democracy must be from the cradle – through nursery, school and play […] through every activity of our life.  Citizenship is not to be learned in good government classes or current events courses or lessons in civics.  It is to be acquired only through those modes of living and acting which shall teach us how to grow the social consciousness.  This should be the object of all day school education, of all night school education, of all our supervised recreation, of all our family life, of our club life, of our civic life.  When we change our ideas of the relation of the individual to society, our whole system of education changes. (Follett, 1918, p. 363) 

In these ideas, Follett’s interest in the role of each individual as part of the community can be seen. In regards to schools, Follett would have favoured a communitarian approach to education.  Each stakeholder in the child’s education – the child, parent, teacher, administrators and members of the community – would participate in the life of the school.    In her writings Follett also emphasized the importance of experience. However she felt it was not to be vague experience randomly applied to unrelated enterprises.  In the school environment leaders would be sought out according to what experience the person had in relation to the task at hand.  It would be the job of administrators to have an indepth understanding of the capabilities of staff members.  They would also need to encourage a working environment where staff members could voluntarily step forward and willingly offer their services for leadership roles.

The work environment of the school is replete with diversity. This can be one of the largest challenges for school leaders as they try to develop positive school climate and school culture. Teachers come from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.  They have differing levels, types and amounts of experience.  Some teachers are more progressive, while others are more traditional in their teaching and interpersonal styles.  Some have specific ideological leanings that are reflected in their teaching methods.  They may support the ideas of Howard Gardner, Rudolf Steiner or Maria Montessori.  Some teachers do not support labeling children with conditions such as ADHD, whilst other teachers do.  When personalities, lifestyles and political agendas are added into the mix, the degree of diversity becomes broader.   These factors will have a direct impact on the school climate and culture.  The leadership of the school will have an important role in ensuring that the diversity in background and outlook of the staff members supports the school’s climate and culture in a positive way.  The challenges are great, as many teachers are nervous about the range of diversity they find in schools.  Rather than coping with it, they retreat or build safe areas within which they can operate unchallenged and undisturbed.  Mary Follett acknowledged this reality by advising that we should not let diversity bring out feelings of hostility.  Rather we should look at differences with an optimistic and, as she called it, civilized outlook.  “How interesting this is”, she wrote.  “This idea has evidently a larger content than I realized; if my friend and I can unify this material, we shall separate with a larger idea than either of us had before.” (Follett, 1918, p. 40)

Mary Follett had a lot to say about the role of diversity in society and within groups of people.  She felt that variety was essential.  “Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim”, she wrote.  “We attain unity only through variety.  Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, nor absorbed.”  (Follett, 1918, p.39)  This attitude is in stark contrast to a school workplace where school leaders might weed out teachers who are willing to follow school procedures, yet continually challenging the status quo and presenting alternative solutions.  When teachers with alternate perspectives are kept out of the school, one is left with a teaching staff that can often appear bland in their perspective and levels of motivation.  Or as Follett wrote, groups without variety “die simply of non-nutrition.  The bond created had not within it the variety which the human soul needs for nourishment”.  (Follett, 1918, p. 39.)

In the same passage Follett suggests that we should not ignore differences.  To do so could result in corruption.  Rather we should learn to like diversity and learn the technique of agreeing.  If we dislike differences we will feel divided.  If we learn to embrace diversity as a positive concept, as something that unites us, we shall welcome it.  Follett thought that such a concept had important implications for society.  In a school this can relate, for example, to how decisions are made.  If votes are taken and decisions are based on the concept of majority rules, the true measure of how each staff member thinks cannot be valued. Follett would say that this is a 19th century concept of democracy.  If the results of surveys or informal opinion taking reflect the opinions of the majority, the opinions of the rest of the population will not disappear.  They will remain under the surface, and will contribute to a growth in discontent.  She later wrote that we should “never, if possible, allow an either-or situation to be created. […] That gives us at once a Yes or No question; we will do it or we won’t do it.  That is fatal to the best thinking.  There are almost always more than two alternatives in a situation, and our job is to analyze the situation carefully enough for as many possible to appear.”  (Follett, 1941, pps. 219 – 220)

Mary Follett’s belief in diversity was grounded in her own practice of valuing every interaction she had in life.  Whether she was speaking with a politician, or the clerk at a hotel desk, she made a point of taking the time to listen carefully to that person’s life stories and experiences.  Her personality has been described as leaning towards simple living, yet charismatic and uplifting in outlook. (“Mary Parker Follett”, 1994 – 95) In a school there are many types of jobs being performed.  Non-teaching staff members include custodians, administrators, secretaries, and bus drivers, for example.  Teaching staff members include homeroom/grade level teachers, specialist teachers and special education teachers.  Each of these staff members will bring their own unique perspective to the workplace.  Administrators can benefit from Follett’s attitude by taking the opportunity to seek out conversations and to see each one as an opportunity to hear stories and experiences, the content of which could shed light on what is happening in the school.

During the mid to latter part of the 20th century the focus in North America, and the United States in particular, has been on the individual.  This attitude was in contrast to the focus on groups in communist countries.  As communism has gradually disappeared from many key places on the world’s political scene, there has been a resurgence of interest in the role of the community.  Some North Americans feel that we have gone too far in separating the individual out from the community and neighbourhood where he lives.  Groups, such as people from different faith backgrounds, are suggesting that it is important to not separate matters of faith into the private realm from the public realm. From differing positions related to various faiths and/or secular beliefs, citizens can comment on the processes that take place in the public realm. Follett’s ideas about the individual and society differ from the predominant view of the individual that was held for most of the 20th century, and provide inspiration for the realization of this ideal of a more diverse experience.

Follett’s ideas about cultural diversity are featured prominently in an American home lifestyle magazine published after recent terrorist attacks.  The quote “Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim” is printed under a photograph.  In it five linked hands show different skin tones, and suggest people of different cultural backgrounds coming together.  Appropriate to Mary Follett’s own lifestyle, the magazine is called “Real Simple”.  As Americans look back in time and search for traditional values and ideas at the core of the American ethos, it is not surprising that they would turn to the highly respected, but often undervalued and forgotten ideas of Mary Follett.

Follett uses the idea of diversity to look at integrating diverse opinions and coming up with new and creative solutions, rather than settling on compromises in which everyone loses to some degree.  As a basis for this attitude, she suggests that within the context of a group or workplace one should never be complacent about the ideas that exist.  “Know that another theory, another cause exists, and seek that.  The enhancement of life is not for the comfort-lover.  As soon as you succeed – real success means something arising to overthrow your security. “ (Follett, 1918, p. 38.)  If we can look elsewhere for ideas when a theory has been accepted, it is not much more difficult to search for a common solution when ideas are not cohesive.

Follett felt that collective bargaining was an acceptable temporary solution to resolving conflicts that arise within the workplace.  She acknowledged that to some degree it has helped to protect the basic rights of employees.  In these processes she saw that people had the tendency to defend their own opinion and to be blind to the position of the other side.  She suggested that each side should make an effort to understand the position of the other. All of the facts related to the situation should be made available to all parties involved.  In the case of labour disputes in British Columbia educational institutions, she would want to see that each side had an in-depth understanding of the somewhat different perspectives and priorities of the other side.  Rather than reaching compromises that involved weakening each side’s initial proposal, she believed that each side could work together to build a new and better solution.  The role of the mediator would be important.  Follett recognized that such a process would require much more of the mediator, than is currently found in collective bargaining processes.  She referred to this process as integration and felt that it could only occur when the diverse opinions of each side are confronted.  (Morton & Lindquist, 1997)  Follett wrote about this concept in an article about psychology of concilitation and arbitration.

I have said that integration is the best way of setting controversy, and perhaps that implies that the chief qualification of arbitrator and conciliator should be that he himself be able to find an integration, usually a pretty difficult task.  Probably the main reason why we do not have more integration is that it requires much more thinking on the part of arbitrator or mediator. […] Unless those chiefly instrumental in settling [a] dispute [have] conferred many times with each side separately, it is doubtful whether the final joint conferences [will] be successful.  (Follett, 1941, p. 241)

Follett provided a more comprehensive attitude towards a cooperative process that is increasingly respected as an ideal in current concepts of collective bargaining.  She encouraged continuous co-operation between employer and worker.  Together the employer, management and workers can build an improved work environment.  She pointed to the example of England, in her day, as a country where there were examples of constructive contributions made by labour to the management.  By encouraging this continuous relationship, teachers would not see the aim as simply to avoid strikes and conflict, but rather as an attempt to benefit from all types of knowledge and experience of everyone working in the school.   As details regarding special education are brought to the negotiation table during labour disputes in British Columbia, involved parties would do well to take this long-term notion of cooperation into consideration.  (Follett, 1941, pp. 227 – 228) 

Follett further cautioned that as processes such as arbitration involve taking evidence from both sides into consideration, it does not involve the exchange of ideas between both sides that might lead to modifications and changes on both sides.  She felt that people come to this process with the wrong attitude.  Since the aim is to award one side or the other, or come up with a compromise, people come into the situation looking to support their side’s position.  They are usually not open to the possibility that the other side might have something valuable to say that might shift their own perspective. (Follett, 1941, p. 235)  Most disputes in schools are handled at a local and more intimate level.  Follett’s ideas can encourage administrators to help develop an environment in meetings that encourages an exchange of ideas.

In order to work together towards a creative solution, an understanding of the role of the individual in relation to the group, and requisite sentiments within the group must be developed.  Throughout her writings Follett emphasizes the importance of relationships.    “Evil is non-relation”, she wrote.  “The source of our strength is the central supply.  You might as well break a branch off the tree and expect it to live.  Non-relation is death.”  (Follett, 1918, pps. 62 – 63)  Teachers, in informal discussions about their workplace, often remark that it takes time to build relationships amongst staff members.  The new principal will sit back and observe the new environment.  She will take the time to speak with others in large, medium and small sized groups, and talk with staff members one-on-one.  She will ask questions about why things are done in a specific manner and will elicit suggestions for change.  As this process progresses she is gradually building relationships.

Every school year new teachers start working at a school.  In some schools, such as international schools, the turnover of staff members can be relatively high.  Opportunities to meet not only in large staff groupings, but also in smaller and one-on-one meetings, are important.  If staff members feel that they are simply warm bodies in a meeting listening to people talk at them, the development of relationships will be inhibited.  Social events for the staff members are equally important to encourage the establishment of relationships.  Some employers go so far as to bring their staff on retreats or Outward Bound trips to help foster the strengthening of relationships.

While these activities focus on the whole group, Follett did not neglect the importance of the individual.  She felt that our “separateness, our individual initiative, are the very factors which accomplish our true unity with men”.  (Follett, 1918, pg. 84) She took a hard look at individualism and concluded that it was directly related to the collective experience.  Within the broader context of the group, the individual has the scope to develop her individuality.  (Follett, 1918, p. 73)  Follett believed that this potential was possible through cooperation, and that collective thought and collective will are an important basis for cooperation.  This can only happen if each person takes part in the life of the group.  In meetings and planning sessions at school, if some staff members dominate whilst others watch quietly, full participation is not occurring.  Collective thought does not exist.  As an incentive she later wrote that one should not perceive the interests of the individual as being against the interests of the organization.  “In the long run what is to the advantage of the organization will be to the advantage of the individual.”  (Follett, 1941, p 217)

Follett’s response to the 20th century focus on individuality was to say that “true individualism has been the one thing lacking either in motive or actuality in a so-called individualistic age, but then it has not been an individualistic but a particularistic age.”  (Follett, 1918, pg. 74)  She made a connection between the value of true individualism and its relationship to the group.  This connection helps to validate her emphasis on the seemingly contradictory notions of diversity and the importance of the group.   In order to build empathy amongst people, which is an important outcome and support for relationships, we must live a group life.  She felt this was the solution of national and international problems and anticipated the formation of an organization such as the United Nations.  “True sympathy will come only by creating a community or group of employers and employed.”  (Follett, 1918, pg. 47)  These ideas are particularly relevant to concerns about the development of school climate, involving the teacher as an individual and as a member of medium to large sized groups.

The role of leadership is important in the development of an integrative approach to interaction.  Follett saw the power of leadership as an equivalent to the power of integrating.  The leader does not control the group through domination, but by stimulating what is best in it.  She is remembered for having said “The person who influences me most is not he who does great deeds but he who makes me feel I can do great deeds.  Many people tell me what I ought to do and just how I ought to do it, but few have made me want to do something.”  (Follett, 1918, pp. 229 – 230)  As the collective will to participate develops, a sense of purpose will develop.  This is a natural evolvement within a group that is not elicited through artificial means.  In a school, a leader exemplifying the aforementioned characteristics will help to engender relationship building and an environment where individual employees can contribute their ideas and experiences.  Follett believed that “purpose forms the will at the same time as the will forms the purpose, which finds no separation anywhere in the social process.  We can never think of purpose as something in front that leads us on, as the carrot leads the donkey.  Purpose is never in front of us, it appears at every moment with the appearance of will.” (Follett, 1918, p. 277)  Professional development opportunities should enhance this process rather than being seen as the process that brings about agreement on a sense of purpose.  The development of a sense of purpose is an ongoing, year-round process.

It is often said that a school needs a unifying vision, a purpose that will bring the staff together.  Follet wrote that “confidence will [never] be attained except by making the aims of employers and employees the same.” (Follett, 1941, p. 219)  The leaders within a school need to have the ability to encourage participation and understand how a sense of purpose develops.   Follett argued that it was critical for people to not let their own sense of responsibility be taken over by outside agencies and other people.  This concept has implications in areas such as special education. 

It is all too common for teachers to take the attitude that their aids and outside special education teachers are responsibile for their students.  Follett wrote that “only the active process of participation can shape [one] for the social purpose.” (Follett, 1918, p. 277)  Administrators need to develop modes of communication that can bring people who share a common goal to a shared view of responsibilities and a sense of purpose.  Only then can creative solutions be found for current challenges.  Instances of labour disputes in British Columbia educational institutions and changes to the process of Special Education funding indicate that there are prime opportunities for individual stake holders to create a commonly shared sense of purpose.

Some of Follett’s most notable ideas center on the concept of the neighbourhood. Her outline for the development of neighbourhoods can be transferred to the school community.  These are ideas that encourage diverse groups of people to establish interpersonal connections.  Schools that hold monthly departmental meetings, and provide few opportunities to come together as a community, would do well to consider her five main ideas.

Follett points out that meetings should not be sporadic or occasional, but rather they should be regular.  Group discussions should be part of these regular meetings, however they should not include debates. All too often staff meetings either do not involve any type of communication beyond moving through a tightly controlled meeting agenda.  When communication does occur, it can quickly disintegrate into a debate.  In debating, Follett wrote,  “you do not try to see what ideas of your opponent will enrich your own point of view.  […]  In a discussion you can be flexible […] you can grow as the group grows, but in a debate all this is impossible.  (Follett, 1918, pp. 209 – 210) 

Staff members and other members of the school community should have the opportunity to learn together in lectures and classes, and share experiences whilst doing social activities.  Regular connections amongst people in the school community, and with people outside of this community, should take place.  Through these interactions, relationships and increased mutual understanding will develop.  Out of all of these experiences, members of the school community should develop the ability to take increased responsibility for all aspects of their school, not simply their own individual areas of interest.

Mary Follett’s writings cover a broad range of topics that can be informative for civic leaders, educators, politicians, and active members of neighbourhoods and communities.  It has been said that interest in her work may have died simply because she died.  One of the driving forces behind the success of her ideas was the impact of her charismatic personality.  She had untiring optimism in people and their capabilities, and this attitude can be seen in her work.  Underlying all of her ideas is the premise that if you can believe something is possible, you will succeed.


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Liebmann, G. (2001).  Six Lost Leaders:  Prophets of Civil Society.  Oxford:  Lexington Books.

Mary Parker Follett: Leadership Thinker Ahead of Her Time.  Leadership Vol. V (2) (1994 – 95, Winter)  Retrieved November 26th, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

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Parker Follett.  London:  Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons Ltd.

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Follett.  Administration & Society, 29 (3), 348 – 372.  Retrieved November 25th, 2001 from Academic Search Elite on-line database (Public Administration, 9706264753)



Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management

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