The Nineteenth Century Agile Leader by Mary Parker Follett

Mary Parker Follett, a late nineteenth and early twentieth century scholar, was a century ahead of her time in terms of organizational understanding, development and leadership. I came upon her work thanks to the insight by my friend and colleague Martin Kearns in reading a summary of her work through the book The Essential Mary Parker Follett by Françoi Héon, etal

If Mary were in today’s leadership discussions, likely she would be a part of the agile community. Speaking on difference, conflict, unity, integration and more, Follett espouses post-heroic and agile leadership principles. One of the key mindset shifts of agile leadership is moving from a competitive thought process to a collaborative one, from “or” thinking to “and” thinking, to enable organizational possibility, creativity and innovation. Her deep dive into some key leadership qualities and characteristics is incredibly powerful, as an example on her focus on unity vs. uniformity…

“Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, nor absorbed.” pg. 31

Furthermore, her agile mindfulness is also adept, in this articulation of unity vs. unifying as a distinction of a final state vs. a state of being…

“The most important thing to remember about unity is that there is no such thing. There is only unifying. You cannot get unity and expect it to last a day or five minutes… [This is] neither of subordination nor of domination, but of each man learning to fit his work into that of every other in spirit of co-operation.” pg. 168

Her agile leadership wisdom continues…


Conflict and Difference…

Agile leaders learn not to avoid conflict, but rather to see conflict as the beginning of a conversation, deeper understanding, discovery and potential change. Her perspective on conflict and difference highlights this key distinction quite articulately. In addition, the options she provides a leader in dealing with this conflict provide a range of actions to consider…

“At the outset I should like to ask you agree for the moment to think of conflict as neither good nor bad; to consider it without ethical prejudgement; to think of it not as warfare, but as the appearance of difference, difference of opinions, of interests. For that is what conflict means – difference… When differing interests meet, they need not oppose but only confront each other. The confronting of interests may result in either one of four things: (1) voluntary submission of one side; (2) struggle and the victory of one side over the other; (3) compromise; or (4) integration.”  pg. 24 and 111

Integration vs. Competition…

Agile leaders learn to transcend a competitive and duality view of win-lose (or lose-win or lose-lose) into a more collaborative and inter-dependent view of win-win through cooperation and integration…

“Suppose I disagree with you in a discussion and we make no effort to join our ideas, but ‘fight it out.’ I hammer away with my idea, I try to find all the weakest parts of yours, I refuse to see anything good in what you think. That is not nearly so difficult as trying to recognize all the possible subtle interweaving of thought, how one part of your thought, or even one aspect of one point, may unite with one part or one aspect of one part of mine, etc. Likewise with cooperation and competition in business: cooperation is going to prove so much more difficult than competition that there is not the slightest danger of any one getting soft under it.” pg. 112

Integration vs. Compromise…

Agile leaders recognize compromise as a form of competition, in that one side gives up this fight for a kick back in a later fight. This is not change, but merely strategic competition…

<p“Integration might be considered a qualitative adjustment, compromise a quantitative one. In the former there is a change in the ideas and their action tendencies; in the latter there is mere barter of opposed ‘rights of way’… In compromise, I say, there is no qualitative changes in our thinking. Partisanship starves our nature: I am so intent on my own values that other values have got starved out of me; this represents a loss in my nature, in the whole of my personality. Through an integration of understanding, the quality of one’s own thinking is changed; we are sensitized to an appreciation of other values.” pg. 126

“If we only get compromise, the conflict will come up again and again in some other forms, for in compromise we give up part of our desire, and because we shall not be content to rest there, sometime we shall try to get the whole of our desire… Only integration really stabilizes. But by stabilization I do not mean anything stationary. Nothing ever stays put. I mean only that that particular conflict is settled and the next occurs on a higher level.” pg. 127

Integration vs. Balance…

Agile leaders often seek balance in their perspectives and approaches, and while balance in thinking and approach – strategic and tactical, performance and health, discussion and decisions, incremental and wholesale, etc. – is healthy for an agile leader, balance of power is often a form of compromise, rather than a unity view…

“Moreover, the doctrine of integrating interests does away with that of the balance of interests which has so many advocates… In fact, observation of industrial controversy for the last ten years leads me to think that those disputes which are ‘settled’ merely by the balance of power are not really settled at all. The slightest shift of power brings the matter up again with accumulated rancor and hard feelings. The balance theory gets us nowhere in law or politics or international relations.” pg. 128

Integration Discussion vs. Action…

Agile leaders know that learning only truly occurs through doing. Talking about change is not enough, action is required for change to occur…

“…Integration, the resolution of conflict, the harmonizing of difference, must take place on the motor level, not the intellectual level. We cannot get genuine agreement by mere discussion in conference. As our responses are governed by past habits, by what has been incorporated in the organism, the only way of getting other responses is by getting other things incorporated in the organism… Genuine integration occurs in the sphere of activities, and not of ideas or wills.”  pg. 132

The Barriers to Integration…

Agile leaders fight impediments every day and know that there are many roadblocks in the road of change…

“…Let us consider the chief obstacles to integration. It requires a higher order of intelligence, keen perception and discrimination, more than all, a brilliant inventiveness… Another obstacle to integration is that our way of life has habituated many of us to enjoy domination. Integration seems to many a tamer affair; it leaves no ‘thrills’ of conquest… Another obstacle to integration is that the matter in dispute is often theorized over instead of being taken up as a proposed activity… Finally, perhaps the greatest of all obstacles to integration is our lack of training for it.” pg. 138

Agile Leadership…

Agile leadership is the ability to make wise decisions and take effective action amid complexity and rapid change. Agile leaders must first be willing and able to integrate over compete, compromise and balance, and second be able to act upon it through integrating people, processes, structures, systems, and values. Integration is the key fulcrum of change. Through integration we understand different perspectives, break down silos, expose new ideas, and open up new channels to change and growth.

Mary Parker Follett was a scholar way ahead of her time. Her wisdom and articulate characterization on organizations and leadership have influenced my thinking and clarity on the subject and I hope they have opened up some doors for you as well.

 

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