Meadows states that the most important part of a system is its function or purpose. For natural and mechanistic systems she uses the word function. For human – social systems – she uses the word purpose. She states, “the least obvious part of the system, its function or purpose, is often the most crucial determinate of the systems behavior”.
Evolutionary theorists tell us that it took millions of years for nature to develop the complex web of interconnected natural systems. For example, it is believed that bees first appeared on earth’s stage 165 million years ago. Bees are part of a complex interconnected set of systems that make up our large ecosystems. While we might think the critical purpose of a beehive is to produce honey it is actually to sustain itself and support the production of fruits and vegetables. Without bees there would be no apples to enjoy in the fall.
The difference between a natural system and a social/leadership system as that we can reverse engineer the leadership system to create the system we want. To create a system that will provide the best opportunity to maximize customer value. This begins with first identifying the systems primary purpose.
Our research indicates there are two broad purposes for leadership systems:
- Benevolent purposes – empowerment, safety, service, etc. When Paul O’Neil took over Alcoa he set up a system focused on worker safety and profits soared.
- Less than benevolent – profits, power, protection, etc. The New York mafia has a clear leadership purpose. Protect the family at all costs or the penalty is a bullet in the head.
Research suggests that purposes which are benevolent are built in into the system intentionally. Those systems that happen through enterprise evolution tend to adopt purposes that eventually harm the enterprise.