The Experience of Ideas

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The Functions of the Executive: A Moral Obligation to Self-satisfaction

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Barnard is regarded as a seminal theorist on the systems view of the organization. I argue that his cooperative system follows transactional assumptions founded on Hobbesian ideals.

Barnard’s (2001 [1938]) pessimistic introduction of cooperation: “Thus most coöperation fails in the attempt, or dies in infancy, or is short-lived” (p. 5) reminds me of Hobbes’ (2002 [1651]) view of man’s life outside the commonwealth: “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (p. 65). In fact, the Leviathan came to mind many times as I read The Functions of the Executive. The reciprocal relationship between the effectiveness of organizational attainment and the efficiency of personal satisfaction reminds me of the social contract, just as the role of the executive reminded me of the role of the sovereign in that contract. As in Hobbes’ commonwealth, Barnard’s organization requires consent from the individual, which is attained through mutually beneficial transaction; it also requires a head whose primary role is maintaining the processes and terms of that transaction. I will explore two fundamental themes shared by Barnard and Hobbes. First is the idea that the function of the individual in the organization is to attain self-satisfaction, which is expressed in Hobbes as “men have the Liberty, of doing what their own reasons shall suggest, for the most profitable to themselves” (p. 107). Second is the idea that the objective of the executive’s activities is to maintain the process of self-fulfillment. Hobbes describes this objective as an obligation:

The OFFICE of the Soveraign, (be it a Monarch, or an Assembly,) consisteth in the end, for which he was trusted with the Soveraign Power, namely the procuration of the Safety Of The People; to which he is obliged by the Law of Nature, and to render an account thereof to God, the Author of that Law, and to none but him. But by Safety here, is not meant a bare Preservation, but also all other Contentments of life, which every man by lawfull Industry, without danger, or hurt to the Common-wealth, shall acquire to himselfe. (Hobbes, 2002 [1651], p. 168)

Will Cooperate for Self-Satisfaction

Figure 1: The interrelationship of ends through their systematic fulfillment.

Barnard (2001 [1938]) describes organizations as a byproduct of cooperation. The organization in and of itself is not an end, as he describes it, but something that results from the attempt to achieve an end— like an anthill is the byproduct of the cooperation between ants to achieve shelter, nourishment and reproduction. However, cooperation is not an end in itself— people need to get something from it. Barnard identifies three primary ends: (1) the goal of the cooperative effort, (2) the satisfaction in individual motives and (3) the fulfillment of the organizational purpose. All three are tightly interrelated (see figure 1).

Effectiveness and efficiency are dynamic measures of a successful organization and, according to Barnard (2001 [1938]), have an interdependent relationship. “Although effectiveness of coöperative effort relates to accomplishment of an objective of the system and is determined with a view to the system requirements, efficiency relates to the satisfaction of individual motives” (p. 56). To participate in a cooperative effort and individual must expect that the accomplishment of the goals of the effort with in some way satisfy their personal interests. Thus for cooperation and thus the organization to continue, the effort must be effective in reaching the goals of the cooperative and efficient in satisfying the needs of the individuals within the cooperative.

For Barnard (2001 [1938]), efficiency is synonymous with equilibrium because it is the balance between the effort an individual is willing to extend to the cooperative and the satisfaction the individual derives from that effort. If the effort is greater than the satisfaction then the individual is not motivated to cooperate and if the satisfaction is greater than the effort the organization than the goal will not be accomplished to as effectively as it could.  In order for this balance to work, the goal or the process of achieving it must in some way satisfy the motive, either tangibly or intangibly.

The expression of this balance between the cooperative goal and the individual motivation is the organization’s purpose, which is established by the executive. “It is important at this point to make clear that every coöperative purpose has in the view of each coöperating person two aspects which we will call (a) the coöperative and (b) the subjective aspect, respectively” (Barnard, 2001 [1938], p.86). In the functions that Barnard lays out for the executive, it is evident that the executive’s role is to make the individual relevant to the cooperative effort and the cooperative effort relevant to the individual. The purpose links the cooperative goal to the individual’s motivation and thus perpetuates the cycle of accomplishment driving satisfaction and satisfaction driving cooperation. Therefore, it is the purpose’s ongoing relevance to both the cooperative effort and the people involved in the effort that keeps the organization alive. The more intangible and less concrete the purpose, the longer lasting it is because it is less likely to be exhausted by the completion of cooperative goals.

Hence, an objective purpose that can serve as the basis for a coöperative system is the one that is believed by the contributors (or potential contributors) to it to be the determined purpose of the organization. The inculcation of belief in the real existence of a common purpose is an essential executive function. (p. 87).

It is in this way that interrelationship between effectiveness, efficiency and purpose dictates that the executive— like the sovereign in Hobbes’ Leviathan— be concerned with the satisfaction of his followers/contributors.

Hello, I’m Your Leader. How May I Help You Today?

Given the previous analysis, the single most important thing an executive can do is establish and maintain the purpose of the organization, which is the third function of the executive. Purpose is the life blood of the organization because “the continuance of an organization depends on its ability to carry out its purpose” (Barnard, 2001 [1938], p. 91). In order for an organization to be both effective and survive, it must continually revise and reestablish its purpose. This is the function of the executive. Because the purpose must be (1) motivationally relevant to and (2) “believed” by the members of the organization, communication and incentives are essential to the development and maintenance of purpose.

Barnard (2001 [1938]) lists maintenance of communication systems as the fist function of the executive. Communication is necessary to coordinate the cooperative efforts of those participating in the organization. It is therefore a critical tool of cooperation that lets people know what to do and how to do it. Communication also enables people to understand the ends of their efforts: whether goals have been accomplished and motives satisfied. Thus it is a tool for motivating people and gaining their loyalty to the organization. This is vital to the second executive function: recruiting people to work and keeping them working (see figure 2).

Figure 2: The contribution of communication systems and incentives to the function of the organization.

The incentive to join an organization, as we have discussed already, is based on how well the motives of the individual align to the purpose of the organization. Likewise the incentive to stay is rooted how well the accomplishments of the organization fulfill an individual’s motives. It is the executive’s job to maintain what Barnard calls the economy of incentives— that is providing the right balance of material and intrinsic inducement to recruit and retain the people needed to achieve the goals of cooperation and fulfill the purpose of the organization. Thus the role of the executive is to sustain the essential systems of the organization, which in turn serve to achieve the goals of cooperation to the satisfaction of the participants. This is a weighty obligation.

Executive Power and Sovereign Rule: a Moral Obligation

Hobbes (2002 [1651]) and Barnard (2001 [1938]) agree that morality is a requirement of leadership. Both executive and sovereign are entrusted with the livelihood of many and have the power to thwart the balance of cooperation driving people to quit or, worse, rebel. Ultimately the imbalance spells dooms for the life of the organization. The appeal to morality is in once sense an appeal to a higher power, one that can check the power of the leader. But it also speaks to the motivation of the leader, recognizing that like every other person in the organization, s/he seeks self-satisfaction. A moral character, therefore, is one whose satisfaction results from the intrinsic pleasure of meeting one’s responsibility to the well-being of others. As Barnard argues, to maintain a moral character one must capable of to handling such responsibility— intellectually, physically and psychologically. “[T]he requisite morality and sense of responsibility without commensurate abilities leads to fatal indecision or emotional and impulsive decisions, with personal breakdown and ultimate destruction of the sense of responsibility” (p. 276). Given the assumptions that (1) the organization exists to satisfy the people within it and (2) the leader’s role is to facilitate the organization in fulfilling its purpose, it is little wonder that both Hobbes and Barnard conclude that leadership is less a privilege than a profound burden.


Barnard, C. I. (2004 [1938]). The Functions of the Executive (Thirtieth Anniversary Edition). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hobbes, T. (2002 [1651]). Leviathan or The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civill. Project Gutenberg EBook. Retrieved July 1, 2010 from

Written by Martha Holmes

August 31, 2010 at 9:31 pm