April 21, 2023

❏ Notes to Self 003 - Leadership, Not Leaders

I have recently, thanks to Mastodon's non-algorithmic feed, learned about the work of Mary Parker Follet. Follet was an early philosopher, management consultant, and pioneer in the field of organizational theory and behavior who has some very interesting and relevant ideas about organizations, leadership, and complexity.

I haven't read Follett directly (yet), but rather Nanette Monin and Ralph Bathurst's close reading of Essentials of Leadership, a lecture she delivered in 1933 to the newly formed Department of Business Administration at the London School of Economics.

I wanted to capture some initial notes from my reading because there are seeds of thought, ideas of Follett's that I find very compelling and germane to what we are facing in the 21st century. There is complexity in what Follett writes about and she refuses to reduce what she is pointing to into anything concrete, finished, or fully known. Instead, she advocates for the role that leadership, as creative enactment, can play as a sense making process to uncover threads of possibility in each arising moment.


In business we are always passing from one significant moment to another significant moment, and the leader’s task is pre-eminently to understand the moment of passing. The leader sees one moment melting into another and has learned the mastery of the moment. (Follett, p. 53)

The leader's job is to pull the thread of meaning that seems to structure the situation and discover within it the action that will result in the most satisfying outcome for all involved while at the same time holding each resolution lightly. (p. 452)

Effective leaders enable followership of all, themselves included, to enthrone leadership and demote leaders. (p. 457)


  • Leadership is enacted towards a common purpose. Leadership is something that is done, not something that is.
  • Leadership as a process of sense-making in order to discover the thread that structures understanding of the total situation. The total situation is ultimately unknowable because it is always changing, dissolving, reforming making it impossible for a leader to understand the total situation. But this should not stop a leader from trying.
  • The thread cannot be reduced to a single narrative but must stay connected to multiple possibilities, “where multiple readings of the ever-changing situation allow for creative new solutions not yet considered (p. 450).” This of course is a paradox, the leader can never accomplish this.
  • Leadership is not some kind of exalted, super hero role, but the birthright of every man.
  • Leadership is a creative role and leaders must learn to work with transitoriness. Leaders must live in doubt, confusion, and limited understanding (Follet calls this negative capability).
  • Follett argues that there are no leaders, only leadership. The one true leader is common purpose.
  • The thread is the web of relationships that comprise and organization, not a mechanism to exploit or control outcomes.
  • The paradox of leadership is that the central responsibility of the leader can never be fully realized because the total situation is not static.
  • I think what I like about this is the constant becoming aware of, coming to, letting go, sensing again cycle that it invites. A freshness that is always present, always more full and alive than we can imagine.
  • It is not enough to see the situation, the leader must also see the evolving situation, the developing situation, a situation that is constantly changing all the time.
  • Making is what leadership is about. The making of leadership is to create the future because, as Follett points out, we usually "have the situation that we make" which relies upon the leader's understanding of the relation between all the different factors. It is not just meeting the next situation, it is making the next situation.
  • Leading and following are not antithetical. It is followers who provide leadership, who enable leaders to lead
  • Ultimately, there is no such thing as a leader, there is only leadership
  • Common purpose is the invisible leader of both leaders and followers. Sometimes we may be called to share our expertise (which I think can look like the role of leader) but ultimately when we are followers of the common purpose then we have the best chance at the common bond of union.
  • Follett wanted to bust the myth that “leaders are born, not made.”
  • Follett talks about a “diffused leadership”, but I am not yet clear on what exactly that means.
  • The total situation is always in the process of becoming another situation, common purpose can only be supposed through attempts to figure out the always transitory total situation, and leadership (not leaders) is the way to sense make and find the threads and overall structure.
  • I appreciate how much she plays with paradox, especially given my recent trainings in Gestalt. Follett was influenced by Gestalt as well. Chapter 5 of her book Creative Experience is titled “Experience in the Light of Recent Psychology: The Gestalt Concept.”