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There Is a Better Way to Use Power at Work. This Forgotten Business Guru Has the Secrets

12 minute read
Barzun's new book is The Power of Giving Away Power. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom and to Sweden. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife, Brooke, and their children

In 2003, Harvard Business School published a list of the two hundred most influential leadership gurus and then asked these two hundred to identify the person who had the most impact on their thinking—the gurus’ guru. Famed management thinker Peter Drucker was number one. Yet toward the end of his life, Drucker wrote an essay revealing that he had his own guru too—the gurus’ guru’s guru, if you will. This person had been the most sought-after name on the business speaker circuit in the 1920s and, according to Drucker, “the brightest star in the management firmament.”

Her name was Mary Parker Follett. She had been recognized as the Peter Drucker of her time while she was alive. Yet only one decade after this ur-guru’s death in 1933, the memory of all her famous talks and writings had essentially vanished. This towering figure, lamented Drucker, had “become a ‘nonperson.’” It’s a tragedy. Because she had already revealed and articulated a set of ideas that can help us with many of our current challenges of leadership, like how to distribute power, navigate uncertainty, and make diversity a valuable asset.

Mary Parker Follett was born outside Boston in 1868 at a time of faltering reconstruction for both the country and her family. From a young age Follett felt the tension between official authority—with its clear rules about everything from what to wear, how to speak, and whom to marry—and the world of her own heart and eager mind. She was expected to accept that her father, a Civil War veteran whose PTSD triggered severe alcoholism, should be cast out of polite society, but when he was sober he was the sole parent with whom she felt a soulful connection. She was expected to stay home and help her beleaguered and sometimes bedridden mother, but she was the smartest kid in town with ambition to burn. She was expected to plan her life around a future husband, but she was never even attracted to boys.

Instead, she got herself accepted to The Annex at Harvard, the precursor to Radcliffe College, where she became fascinated by leadership and power in America—not as abstract principles but how they actually worked in the real world in a democracy.

Follett had grown up just miles from the birthplace of the Revolution yet had never felt very free. She knew that even in a supposed democracy, there was no shortage of formal and informal power being lorded over others. So, when it was time to write her senior thesis, she set her sights on the nature of power in Washington, D.C.

She studied the thirty-nine men who had held the job of Speaker of the House of Representatives and concluded that the most effective leaders mastered what she called the “unwritten practice,” and what I identify as the art of interdependence. Our instinct is to call that “power sharing”, but that’s not exactly right. It was power creating, which arose from making something—a bill, an act, an appointment—using the energy and perspective of many. The same idea is enshrined in our national motto, “e pluribus unum.”

Her professors at the Annex were astounded at the achievement and helped her publish the book, unpretentiously titled The Speaker of the House of Representatives. Today, we might call it a landmark leadership book and it made a big splash with reviews from the big newspapers and a rave from an up-and-coming New York politician named Theodore Roosevelt. If Follett had been a man, the reception of her book would have amounted to a career-making launchpad, earning her a professorship at a place like Harvard. But that path was not open to women. And so, with the encouragement of her life partner Isobel, instead of telling about these ideas she decided she would show them.

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Follett joined the reformist crowd of upper-middle-class women in Boston, but she began to see that her progressive peers had a blind spot. Their own strict conventions narrowed their perspective. The reformers’ stated goal was to integrate immigrant families into American life, and their programs had indeed proved effective with newly arriving women and children but had persistently failed to attract a key constituency: fathers. Follett sensed that something about the tone of the reformers didn’t make the fathers feel welcome.

She wanted a place where women, men, and children all felt equally accepted. That’s when she recognized there already was such a place—the public school. She wondered: What if schools kept their doors open in the evenings too? What if there were a place in every community that could expand the feeling of belonging? The idea made many nervous, from school boards worried about losing control of their buildings to political bosses worried about losing control of their turf. Follett embraced this tension and conflict. She didn’t let one group dominate or be dominated—she kept them all at the table.

Soon, she was instrumental in spreading the changes from one school in Roxbury to many throughout Boston and then all over the country. In her lifetime more than 240 cities adopted what was called the community center movement (New York City alone had five hundred), providing four million Americans in varying group sizes and configurations with spaces to make power together.

Meanwhile, her successes got her appointed to Boston’s newly created minimum wage board, which dealt with increasingly bitter labor disputes. This work brought her around a table with business owners and their workers and gave Follett her first glimpse into what we would call “corporate culture.” This was a chance to explore what had become her passion—how small, diverse groups of people with a dizzying array of different and diverging hopes and fears can try to work together to make something more impactful than they could alone.

It was in this unlikely place that Follett made the realization that launched her to worldwide fame as a leadership guru. For years, she suspected there was a better way of using power to get more done. She had studied it in history, she had practiced it for 25 years on front lines of social work. And now she knew it and would have to write about it again. She could see that energy and power could be created and kindled or smothered and killed wherever and whenever people gathered. Her eyes had become wide open to the ravages of the mindset that forced people to conform to set roles or else cast them out if they didn’t fit in.

And while all this sounds very big, she believed the most important, far-reaching changes began at a small scale, among small groups of people. It all hinged on how we interacted in small groups. How you could create spaces where each person could at once stand out and fit in? How you could create unity without mandating uniformity?

She had attended thousands of committee meetings in every realm of civic life. She had a Ph.D in meetings. Like all of us, she knew how dreadful they could be. But that’s because, she concluded, we were doing it wrong. Meetings, she realized, are where our most meaningful work ought to happen. Not just planning for growth, not just planning for change, but growing and changing right then and there.

She developed very clear principles for how things ought to go. Follett believed that meetings have four possible outcomes but only one is good:

Bad outcome #1: Acquiescence. Just give in and let the pushiest or highest-ranking person have their way. This means you have not done your duty to bring your whole self and your wishes, worries, and experiences to the group.

Bad outcome #2: Victory. You “win.” But in the process, everyone else loses their ability to contribute and make a group investment.

Bad outcome #3: Compromise. Most of us think compromise is a good outcome, but Follett wrote that compromising is just the practice of hammering out partial acquiescence from all participants. No growth or group investment takes place because no one leaves satisfied.

Only good outcome: Co-creation. It happens when all members of a group make a new thing together. This new thing is truly yours as an individual and also truly the product of the group. You are in it. It is of you and in you. And your individuality is not diminished as a result. It is enhanced.

There’s a helpful phrase that has taken hold in corporate HR departments in the past decade: diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice. The point is that diversity is all around us and always has been, and acknowledging diversity is a first step but not enough. Inclusion is an action—what we choose to do with the diversity. We need to actively include that diversity into our companies, our teams, our meetings, and so forth. Mary Follett would tell us we shouldn’t stop there, though. That’s not nearly enough. Yes, inclusion gets the right people to the table. But that’s when the hard work should begin. What we need to do is spark the energy and connection between people to make something that is bigger than any individual. She might amend the phrase as follows: Diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice; co-creation is the work.; and interdependence is the promise.

“Interdependence” can sound like a soft, group-hug, collectivist thing. But Follett observed that it was nothing like that. It was hard work requiring specific habits. But today we’ve lost our feel for them. We find ourselves toggling between dependence—bristling under the hierarchy of top-down organizational structures—and independence—solitary agents pining for connection yet paranoid of others’ power.

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Follett saw it coming in the early 20th-century as the financial success of industrialization was making us organize like the machines we were using so productively. The dominant trend in the brand-new field of business scholarship was something called “scientific management.” Its founder, Frederick Taylor, encouraged organizations to “de-personalize” and to measure every minor body movement of workers in a factory. His ideas took hold, requiring ever more managers to watch the workers and the number of supervisors grew at more than double the rate of wage earners. The result, Follett said, was that workers felt “at the bottom level of a highly stratified organization.”

Follett, whose ideas were beginning to gain steam, called for re-personalization—to bring the right kind of struggle into each encounter. In what became her standard presentation, she encouraged leaders to allow all members of the team to share their views and study the problem at hand from many angles, with each person bringing their knowledge to the table. This was what she called “power-with,” not “power-over.”

She felt these habits of interdependence were much more important than any org chart. She articulated them in many ways, but they boiled down to this:

Expect to need others. Enter with the intention to make differences and diversity fruitful in order to make something together

Expect to be needed. Bring your whole self to the meeting. Ask and answer hard questions to the best of your ability and pursue them wherever they may lead in an atmosphere of trust

Expect to be changed. Yes, you need to (as we say today) bring “your truth” to the encounter. But Follett insists you have a reciprocal obligation to allow that truth to be affected by others. You should expect to leave a meeting not quite the same person as when you entered.

Her “power-with” lecture became a trans-Atlantic hit and she was asked to speak all over the country and in Europe. Then, at the height of her fame, came the stock market crash of 1929. Businesses were no longer hoping to improve; they hoped just to survive. Follett was struggling just to survive too. She had recently lost her partner Isobel to cancer. Then, on December 19, 1933, she succumbed to cancer herself at age sixty-five.

There was no mention of her decades later when Harvard Business School published their gurus’ gurus list with Drucker at the top. In fact, according to Drucker, nearly all memory of her famous talks and writings was also dead within a decade. A Depression, a war, a cold war made America a more centralized and mechanized place. To point out just how much perceptions of power had changed since Follett’s death—from the excitement of creating boundless new “power-with” opportunities to the grim, zero-sum hoarding and lording of a finite amount of power—Drucker noted that the top-selling book just three years after she died was Politics: Who Gets What, When, How.

Our view on power hasn’t changed all that much in 90 years. But Mary Follett and others with her gift of perception tell us that power, when hoarded to oneself or lorded over others, is like an old battery and will stagnate, degrade and corrode. But power that flows out will generate more power, which will, in turn, flow back again. It doesn’t start with a grand plan. It doesn’t start with the boss. And it doesn’t start with an HR seminar. It starts with a changed perspective and a new habit to practice right now.

Expect to be needed. Expect to need others. Expect to be changed.

From THE POWER OF GIVING AWAY POWER by Matthew Barzun, published by Optimism Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Matthew W. Barzun.

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