The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 217

John Mackey

Conscious Leadership, Part I

This is part one of two in my conversation with John Mackey.

How do you take control of your life, even when precious little is in your control? John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods and co-author of Conscious Capitalism, joins us to discuss his newest book, Conscious Leadership. Discover how he dealt with a coup that nearly ousted him from his company, how throwing a textbook on the floor changed his life forever, and why “happiness is agency, but willingly surrendered.”

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Transcript

This transcript is unedited.

 

Peter:

I’m delighted to have a terrific guest today. John Mackey joins us. He has written most recently the book conscious leadership, elevating humanity through business makin co founded his first health food store safer way in 1978. And that very soon and quickly became whole foods market, which everybody listening to knows about certainly in the U S he has, he wrote conscious capitalism as a book before conscious leadership, which had a huge impact. I know whole foods from my first experience was I, I was at Princeton and, and wild oats was where I went shopping. And then one year whole foods bought wild oats. And so I was like, huh, what is this whole foods thing? And, and soon we all found out. So I’m really, really delighted to have John on the Bregman leadership podcast. John, welcome to the show.

John:

Thanks Peter. Good to be, good to be on the show.

Peter:

So I was saying this to you a little bit before we started recording, but I, I love the book. I love conscious leadership. I love conscious capitalism. I shop at whole foods and, and I love the way you are willing to share your of yourself vulnerably in order to drive your points home. And so I wanna I want to use your story of starting safer way, starting whole foods. The, you know, you open your book with a moment where you almost got fired and, and that, that propelled you into thinking more carefully about how you show up in the world. So I’m curious, maybe if you could just open up this interview with a little bit of that story and like your, your moment of, of self awareness and consciousness around that.

John:

Sure. Well, back in 1999, back when the first internet boom was taking place and we caught the fever at whole foods, we thought, wow, this is really going to be transformative technology. And, and we wanted to have our own internet presence. It was all back then. It was like up for grabs and we were the books that came out, said, you gotta grab your turf now, or you’ll never get it. It’s now or never. I’m my wife. And I moved to Boulder, Colorado. Like we bought a company there called [inaudible], which was a, which was a mail order vitamin company. So we thought that was a good move. These guys are in mail order, they’re getting into the internet. And we could use that sort of as a platform to do a wider whole foods type of of internet company as well. And we, we use the name whole people for that business whole cause our slogan then, and still today really is whole foods, whole people, whole plan. It kind of catches our mission, right. A statement right there. Right. And we moved there and I was the CEO of both companies, but I put I had one of my patients executives took over basically mostly day to day management of the company. And while I was in Boulder of whole foods and I focused on the new internet operation, well, we took venture capital money in, and I think we raised like $30 million and we were, we put up our website and we got going and we basically weren’t doing any business because back in the day it was the Technorati that was actually buying stuff on the internet.

John:

And that nobody else was, it had not penetrated to the mass at all bunch of basically well-educated engineering, white males were buying the, what was the internet back in 1999. Right. And so you had your big internet crash began to also happen soon after we got going. And, and we had partnered with a company called Gaiam, the CEO of guy and founder of guy was on our board of directors as well at whole foods. So I knew all about guys and we basically decided to exit fairly quickly that don’t God, this is not going to work. This is a disaster. And we sold off the remaining assets that we had to guide him and took a charge. And then my wife and I moved back to Austin. But what happened during that period of time is that a couple of directors were very unhappy about the, the distraction and the loss of the whole people.

John:

A creative that was my most vulnerable time and had in the history of the company as an entrepreneur initially you kind of hire your board of directors, right? I mean, you hire, you hire everybody. You’re the entrepreneur puts it all together, gets the capital together. It gets the employees together, gets the suppliers, the entrepreneurs, the driver. And and I think a lot of entrepreneurs can take their board for granted. One of my great lessons from this experience is that you gotta take your board very seriously cause they can fire you. And so to make a long story short, there was a movement to push me out as the company. One of my executives teamed up with two of the directors and they began for lack of a better phrase, a COO to from the out. And that was like a total wake up call because I felt a deeply betrayed by, by this executive who was a good friend.

John:

And I’d worked with him for 16 years and trusted him. And also the directors that I was like, I can’t believe you guys were doing this. So I was vulnerable because of the failure of whole people and they try to take advantage. And and we ended up having long board meeting in Florida. And I had a deep experience the day I was getting interviewed by the board prior to going in. And that was I was touring our stores, which I tend to do. And, and I just had a real quick inning of consciousness. It was like, Oh my God, this is the purpose of my life is, is I’m in the stores. The team members are amazing. The customers are great. I felt my heart just kind of expands in love. I love the team members. I love the customers.

John:

I loved everything about whole foods. And I realized, Oh my God, this could be taken away from me today. And it was like, that cannot be, this cannot be. And I’ll tell you something. I left out of the book, but I actually met with the executive that was trying to take, take me out and take my position. I met with him and said, it’s not too late. We could walk away today. And we could go back to the way things were. But if we continue that this is going to end badly for one of us, you’re, you know, you’re, you’re, you’re going to be, I’m going to fire you if I survive. And he says, well, you’re not going to survive you. And I said, you seem so sure of that. And he says, I got the votes. And I said, man, I really don’t think you do.

John:

But I, he said, he said, you can either go out with honor or you’re going to get thrown out on your ass. It’s your choice. And so nevertheless, I’d had this amazing experience touring our stores and my heart was just kind of bursting with love love about everything. And when I, when I got into the board meeting when I, I was just still, I still a glow, I was in a very higher state of consciousness for myself. I was awake and the bore I went in and I was smiling. I still read any love. And every I, that my mood just affected everybody. And everybody was kind of smiling too. And they asked me, I said, so what happened to, I’m changing the name? What happened to bill? What, what, what did you know what’s happened to him? And I said, I don’t know.

John:

I really don’t understand. I don’t understand. But and then we talked and then we talked about whole foods and what my plans were for it. And, and I put forth the whole vision of how we were going to grow. And, and hopefully it’s at that time was about a billion dollars in sales. So we were a good size company. And today we’re about 20 billion. So we’re 20 times bigger than we were 20 years ago. And I sold the board that day, basically that I was still the right leader. Right. And bill had come in before me and I found out later, it’s sort of been on a rant. And and one of the directors told me later, he said, well, we weren’t sure we wanted you to still be the CEO. We were going to put that guy in charge. He was crazy.

Peter:

So interesting. And what I’m curious if you bring us to that moment, because this is so connected to conscious leadership, the moment when, you know, you’ve had this, this experience of connecting to your purpose and your mission and, and the people and the, the practical feet on the ground, you know, feeling an energy of being in the store. And then you’ve got, we’ll call him bill, bill, come to you and, and say these things. And for most people, not only would they be hurt and vulnerable from the, from, from the betrayal, but then, you know, what we do is we often cover our vulnerability with anger because anger is a much more powerful emotion. And, and I imagine it was be like a, it’s almost impossible to fathom that you wouldn’t become livid. In that example, even with the sort of support of the love, you felt in the thing. And I’m curious what was happening for you in that moment, that feels like a really important moment.

John:

That had happened. And I hadn’t had the experience of this being in the stores and being, I remember I was touring the store at the regional president of Florida, and I was talking about the situation with him. He, he and I were good friends, so I let him in on what was going on. And he looked at me and he says, you don’t have nothing to worry about. There’s no way they’re going to throw you out. You are, he founded the company. You have everybody’s trust. There’d be, it’s not going to happen. Just relax, don’t worry about it. But if I had not had that experience and I had talked to bill, then I might have gone into that fearful and defensive and reactive and angry. And as he did when he went in. So I do think it was sort of you can say it was chance or fortune or destiny or spirituality or, or who the heck knows.

John:

But in fact, I had had this awakening prior to going into the board meeting. It also made me immune to whatever bill said to me. I did not go angry and defensive, but what I did do, and I determined is very important is that I was going to stay in this place. I was going to stay more conscious. I was not going to go back to where I had been. I was not going to go back asleep again. And, and I was going to make changes the whole foods. This was like such a wake up call this. And it was, you have to examine, why did this happen? Well, I wasn’t a victim of this. I created it. I was responsible for my own behavior, my own arrogance, my own hubris entrepreneurs, when they’re successful can get, you know, they can run away with themselves.

John:

I’ve seen it happen to myself, but I’ve also seen it happen to lots of other successful entrepreneurs. They create something, they get wealthy, they’re successful and they start to there. They start to think that they’re like, you know, more important than the universe and they really are. And so I was determined to really go back into, and to be a servant leader of whole foods. So this was just important. And I know since I needed this to happen, this crisis was important. If I, if I could go back, would I, would I, I would, I still have that crisis because that crisis taught me so much.

Peter:

I want to parlay this into a it’s like a question that I’ve had in my mind. And it’s so connected to what you’re saying now, which is, I have seen a friend of mine, Marshall Goldsmith wrote this book. What got you here? Won’t get you there. You know, so many people are successful up to a point, and then they’re only successful up to that point. And I’ve seen it with CEOs that I work with where, you know, we look at people on the team and there’s people who, you know, have been absolutely fantastic at helping the team get to a billion dollars, but they’re not the person who can get the the, the, the organization to 2 billion or 3 billion. They’re just, they don’t have that capability. And, and, and it’s this challenge and, and you, you’ve, you’ve gone from like literally, you know, a hippie in the seventies, starting a health food store along with like thousands of other hippies, starting health food stores in the seventies.

Peter:

And, and, and you went from that to whole foods and to, and to buying a lot of them and, and, and to really becoming this massive global organization. And I’m curious about the, like your view of what, what, what makes you different around that? Like what enabled you? And I’m sure there’s probably, it’s a smooth kind of continuing a growth pattern, but I’m also sure that there’s moments like you just described of this moment where there’s been kind of a major awakening, but what has enabled you to go from like dropping out of college and starting the health food store to running this $20 billion company and, and the, the, the growth that you’ve had to personally go through in order to meet the challenges of each stage.

John:

That’s tremendously good question. And I will try to give a succinct to the answer so I can, but we’ve got to go back in my case too, when I was about 19 or 20 years old, and I’m, I’m actually going back and forth between two universities, one university of Texas in Austin and Trinity university in San Antonio for different reasons. I liked both schools and the Trinity, I was studying religion at UT. I was studying philosophy and I was very much searching. So to speak for the meaning of life. What’s the purpose of life. It may know, you know, and it’s the same kind of questions. Lots of people in their late teens and early twenties are asking. And then supposedly you grow up and you stop asking them. And I was on track to get a degree in philosophy from the university of Texas.

John:

And, and I was taking your course, you know, I mean, they’re always required courses. You have to take to get to get a degree. And I really disliked this course. I really did not like the professor that I was teaching. And I didn’t like the books, and I didn’t want to take this course and had this internal battle going on into my, into my soul, which was, I gotta, I gotta discipline myself. I got to buckle down. I’ve got to do this to get to degree versus I don’t like this book. I’m wasting my time. I don’t want to do it. And this raised within me for about a week. And then one night I stood up, I was trying to read the book. I stood up and actually threw the book down on the ground and said, I’m not going to read this effin book.

John:

And and then all these consequences came out of that. It was like, okay, well, I dropped the course the next day. And it’s was like, okay, well, I’m not going to get a degree then. Okay. Not in philosophy anyway. And so then I just began to take courses. I was interested in and I, I never read, I don’t read books. I’m not interested in, I stopped. I took control of my life. I began to follow my own destiny. I began to follow my own heart. I had a big fight with my parents, and I went out on my own. And it’s like off the doles. You’re not going to get this degree. Then, you know, you, you go out there and find out what the real world is like. And, but I, I, at that point, I woke to taking responsibility for my own life.

John:

And one of the things that I got very clear at at a very young age is the utter reality of death. I got very clear that we are all mortal beings, that, that, that I was going to age and die. I didn’t know how much long time I had on this planet. And it was like, it’s too short to waste doing what everybody else wants you to do instead. I’m I’m I determined that I was going to take control of my destiny. And then that led me to take auditing classes and just, I mean, I have 120 hours of electives and no degree and just about a 4.0 average, but I just did what I wanted to do. And that led me to move into this vegetarian. Co-Op when I was 23, I wasn’t a vegetarian, but I was interested in all things counterculture.

John:

At that time, I was just such, I was a sponge. I sometimes go to the library and read 12 hours a day. I moved in this co-op I met my, I met a woman. I fell in love with her. I became a vegetarian, went to work for a health food store. And I came home one day and said, Renee, what do you think of you? And I opened up a store on our own. And she thought that was so cool. She was a, she was a hippy check. Right. And she thought that was super cool. And so we did, we opened up safer way. And I think the point I’m making in this whole long story is two things. One is, is that I began to follow my own heart. And, and, and that guidance that was inside of me and stopped, I became inner directed instead of outer directed, you might say.

John:

And the other one was realization how short time is, there’s just, you know, here I am, I’m 66 years old. Now I’m about to be 67. And I’m healthy and vital. I hope I have many more years to go, but I’m, you know, anyway, you slice it more than half. My life is over. And probably two thirds of my life is over or three quarters or whatever I could die tomorrow. And the, and the point is, what are you going to do with the time that you available to you? And I chose to do things that I really care about, and that creates an impetus to grow because we’re all mortal beings, Peter, we’re all gonna die, the right response. And I talk, I talk, we talk about this in the chapter on love, the right response to the reality of, of, of aging and pain and illness and sickness and death is compassion.

John:

We’re all mortal beings. Bill Gates is not getting out of here with any more money than you are, or I am, or anybody else, same thing with Jeff Bezos, Steve jobs died way too young. And he’s a good example of that. He died in his early sixties after creating an amazing company, Apple, when the greatest companies that’s ever been created. So not much time gotta make it count that’ll that will be defined by different people, but there’s no reason to be arrogant. Nobody’s going to remember, honestly, nobody’s going to remember me a hundred years from now and who cares if they did what doesn’t make any difference? What matters is love and making a difference and helping them make the world a better place and fulfilling our, our heart’s desire, whatever that may be.

Peter:

Thank you for that. And I’m so curious about this is what it’s coming to me. Is that something I just read recently, Richard Rohr, who’s a beautiful writer and he’s a Catholic, a Franciscan monk, and he’s written a bunch of books, but one of the things he’s done is studied male initiation rights. And he’s basically said, have all these male initiation rights around the world of every different kinds of peoples, they kind of are there to teach five things, right? One, and they all have five elements to it. Life is hard. You are not important. Your life is not about you. You are not in control and you’re going to die. Those are great. I agree with all right. They’re amazing. So, so here’s my question as an entree, like you, you’ve described a bunch of that, but you’ve also described your sense of your own agency and your sense of I’ve, you know, and I mean this in a good way, your ego strengths, because there’s ways in which the ego gets in the way and there’s ways in which the ego could be supportive, but you feel like you can make a difference. And I’m curious about like how, like you are not important and you are not in control, which we would both agree with. And yet, like your, you have been a very, very powerful actor in the world and, and you’ve made things happen. So I’m curious to get your

John:

I’ll reconcile that for you. Great. Everyone’s called, but everyone doesn’t choose to answer the call. So here’s the great truth, spiritual truth. You’re only happy when you’re following your heart and your heart is all about love and service. So the ego has to align with the deeper spirituality. And when you do that, then you are fulfilled. So I could choose to acted differently. I could have choose. I could have chosen, still could choose a different destiny for myself. Only I would have been miserable. Happiness comes from following, as you say, it’s agency, but willingly surrendered. It’s still my agency. I surrender it to this higher, deeper service. So I’m, I, I, I’m not overwhelmed by it. I’m not forced to do it. I choose it. And I choose it. We talk in the book about finding win-win solutions. Well, that’s what I’ve kind of built my life around.

John:

It’s a win for me, and it’s a win for others and for you and a win, win for the larger community that we’re part of, but it’s about, I could choose differently, but I wouldn’t be happy choosing differently. And that’s how I reconcile it. In fact, I’m not always on the path, right. I sometimes do stupid things. I get angry. I get. And but I learned to choose again that you can always get back on the path in each moment. And every single moment we can choose love, we can choose to be awake and conscious. And even if we forget, well, that’s in the past and the past doesn’t exist any longer. And the next moment we can choose to go back on the path. And I’ve learned with all my mistakes and I’ve made so many mistakes. Yeah. I’m not that important. And it doesn’t matter.

John:

We’re all brothers and sisters, and we’re all in, in the deepest sense where all the equality, everybody seeks is an equality of the heart. And the fact that we are mortal beings and we’re going to pass on. So why shouldn’t we show compassion and love for each being that we encounter? And so that’s what I try to do. And I’m, I don’t hold myself up as any type of sane. I mean, I’ve got an ego, I make mistakes. I just keep learning from them. And I’d like to think I’m a wiser person than I was last week or 10 years ago or 20 years ago.

Peter:

I love that. And I feel the older that I get the, the increasing sense of the impact and importance of, of love and, and, and how that drives me. And, and also how, when that drives me the meaning that, that I get from it and the joy that I get from it, which you’ve described it in a number of different ways.

Peter:

Hi there. Thanks for listening. Just wanted to let you know that this episode is part one of two. If you enjoy the episode, stay tuned for next week for the conclusion of the conversation. Thanks and have a great week.

 

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