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The Genius of Mary Parker Follett

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Malone
December 3, 2020

Leading in the public service—it’s never been a walk in the park, so to speak. Those who choose to devote their lives to the public service are facing a landscape that is often politically divided, a resource base that is tenuous at best and a citizenry whose appreciation for the work of the public servant runs hot and cold. It is no wonder that from the very beginning of the field, there have been so many attempts to define the best way to manage in order to be effective and efficient with public resources.

Students of public administration know some of the more enduring conceptual frameworks by heart. Woodrow Wilson, often considered the founder of the modern administrative state, heralded the politics administration dichotomy. He warned practitioners that the field of public administration was a field of business and should be kept separate from the messy world of politics. A host of writers followed who suggested various decisionmaking frameworks to aid leaders in the public service as they led in a complex world. And who could forget Luther Gulick’s POSDCORB (Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, Co-ordinating, Reporting and Budgeting) providing civil servants with a structure for addressing any number of management challenges. But it was a social worker and philosopher, and an intellectual by every measure, who made one of the most significant and lasting contributions to leadership in the public service.

Mary Parker Follett was born in 1868 in Quincy, Massachusetts. At the age of 24, she was accepted into the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women in Cambridge, Massachusetts (later renamed Radcliffe College). She graduated in 1898 with specialties in the fields of economics, government, law and philosophy. And if you’re still wondering who Mary Parker Follett was, you are definitely not alone. There were sadly few female voices in the early days of public administration and management, making Follett’s impact even more extraordinary.

Follett emerged at a time when many in the field of public management were focused on mechanization and a strong inclination on the industrial and formal organizational aspects of work. Bureaucracy, process and hierarchy were the order of the day. This perspective fueled much of the growth of a young administrative state, and to its credit, formed a strong institutional framework from which our nation’s civil service infrastructure grew. But it wasn’t enough. Governments don’t succeed because of their formal bureaucratic structure. They succeed because of the people within them, and Follett tapped into that need. In fact, she made lasting contributions in the areas of:

  • Diversity —Follett understood well the impact of diversity on organizational productivity and mission accomplishment. At a time when hierarchical rule was the practice of the day, she called for dissimilar thought in group processes to ensure a variety of ideas were heard and considered. The practice ensured the best decision emerged.
  • Life-long learning—An educator at heart, she considered education to be the lifeblood of advancement and improvement, both at the organizational and individual levels. Not a popular line of thinking in her era, but Follett’s vision laid the foundation for the approaches we see in adult learning today.
  • Engagement—Follett was a strong advocate of engagement. She considered discourse regarding shared experiences, humble inquiry and a search for meaning to be the pathways to learning and improvement. Follett knew that getting a diverse group of people engaged with one another was a powerful force.
  • The human element—Follett viewed humans, not processes, as the most valuable part of an organization. She was one of the earliest voices to argue for the value of positive organizational culture and the importance of placing people first.

Take a close look at the bulleted list above and ponder how many of these concepts you see presented today as “new” or “innovative.” Nope. Not today. They were unheard of in Follett’s time, and her voice remains one of the most powerful in public administration management and leadership. Likewise, the practices that she espoused almost 100 years ago are the foundation of much leadership with our programs today. All would agree that her focus on life-long learning, engagement, diversity and the human element provides a solid foundation for today’s leader.

It is no wonder that Mary Parker Follett is often referred to as the, “Mother of Modern Management.”

Author: Patrick Malone is the Director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University. He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service. His new co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) will be released in Spring 2021. Twitter: @DrPatrickMalone

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