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  • Writer's pictureErika Clegg

Who is the management gurus' guru's guru?

Not only did Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) influence many business experts' favourite management guru Peter Drucker, who referred to her as the 'prophet of management', but also Maslow, creator of the famous hierarchy of needs, and many others who are now seen as defining a set of business philosophies.

She is stunningly contemporary (and was largely ignored in her day) and her view was lead by the concept of motivation through purpose: "Leader and followers are both following the invisible leader – the common purpose. The best executives put this common purpose clearly before their group."

American born to a Quaker family and educated at Radcliffe College, Cambridge and Harvard, though the latter would not go so far as to grant a degree because she was a woman, Parker Follett developed a set of management philosophies that challenged established practice head on.

Her bold thought was to move away from the 'factory workers as well-oiled machine' that dominated management at the time, towards a concept of 'power with' rather than 'power over'.

She called this 'the art of getting things done through people'.

Of course it took many generations for this to become embedded in business as it is now - where the idea of 'leader leader' style has become best practice, and it is understood that a team of people with shared vision and unifying values, personal autonomy and constant development will deliver the goods so much more effectively and enjoyably than a cowed, subservient workforce.

Parker Follett was a sociologist and firmly on the side of the worker. Her strongly held view was that employing someone did not automatically give you a right over them - and even now, sad to say, that view feels cutting edge.

In developing values, helping define vision, and building the ActiveEthos that drives culture, we make a point of engaging the team and drawing in their input to the strategy. The reason? It works. This is resonant with Parker Follett's view, over 100 years ago: "Some people want to give workmen a share in carrying out the purpose of the plant and do not see that it involves a share in creating the purpose of the plant."

It would be disingenuous to suggest that she was wholly ignored in her time. She became a popular writer and lecturer, including at the London School of Economics in 1933, and she also provided personal advice to President Roosevelt on organisational management.

Over time her work gathered dust - less so in Britain than in America, unsurprising since she had spent so much time here in academic institutions which allowed her to share her insights and philosophy. She was rediscovered late in the 20th century and is enjoying a resurgence as people take delight in recognising her influence on modern management thinking.


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