Why Purpose and Passion Go Hand in Hand

Whole Foods founder John Mackey investigates the power of conscious leadership.

Posted Sep 15, 2020

Like most kids growing up in the 1960s, John Mackey lived off of hamburgers and mac ‘n cheese. It wasn’t until he was 23 years old that he discovered the value of eating a vegetable-rich diet. After dropping out of college, he joined a vegetarian co-op in Austin, Texas. By 1978, he and his girlfriend started running a small, vegetarian grocery store called SaferWay in the first floor of an old Austin-based house.

Two years later, when several business partners joined the undertaking, the team changed the store’s name to Whole Foods Market. At an early age, later Chairman & CEO John Mackey altered his life toward a more conscious mindset, thereby leaving an indelible mark on the health food industry. His leadership style led to a record low in turnover compared to other large chain stores in the supermarket universe. Employees genuinely like working there. Who better than John to talk about conscious leadership at a time we need it most?

In his most recent book, Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business (Portfolio/Penguin Random House; September 15, 2020), Mackey and his coauthors, Steve McIntosh and Carter Phipps, argue that if we want businesses to be more conscious, we need more conscious leaders. They discuss nine distinguishing characteristics that unite those who are striving to be more conscious leaders. One of those characteristics is to regularly revitalize and renew your physical, mental, and emotional, and spiritual energy, something The Power of Slow has been encouraging readers to do for over a decade.

Image used with permission by the authors
Source: Image used with permission by the authors

Conscious Leadership demystifies strategies that have helped Mackey shepherd Whole Foods through four decades of incredible growth and innovation, including its recent sale to Amazon. During a recent interview, I sat down with John to ask him about his journey.

From young idealist to accomplished and lauded corporate leader, Mackey’s leadership journey has been one of near-constant evolution. In his most recent book, Mackey shares that story and provides a roadmap for innovative, values-driven leadership. He is both example and guide, writing a plan for leaders which will allow them to transform, develop character, and embrace values to find both passion and purpose.

“You have to practice to be a more loving person,” he told me. “You need to get it into your very being. Integrity is not natural. You have to practice. Purpose is not automatic so you need principles to follow to integrate it into your life.” Being a conscious leader is not a destination, but rather a never-ending journey of improvement. “Listening to criticism is painful because the ego wants to defend itself. But if you re-envision it as a learning journey to become more conscious and never really arrive while becoming more empathetic and able to truly listen, it’s the best way to learn.”

Every one of us is faced with the choice to either embrace growth or run from it. John engages in a meditative practice of mindfulness; that is, simply being present to the moment and paying attention to the world around him. John recognizes a leader is only as good as the team that supports her.

“The media tends to romanticize leaders as supermen and superwomen. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jacinda Ahern, and so on. The great team behind you is what makes up for your weaknesses.”

He also encourages leaders to view business as a win-win-win-win situation. “We tend to think about winners and losers (sports, Darwinian metaphors). How do we all win? Business is fundamentally a game in which everyone can win. We are all interdependent. It would be foolish not to want my customer to win, too. Besides, any successful business recognizes it has constituencies including customers, suppliers and employees. The old way of thinking says if someone is getting rich, someone else must be getting poor.”

With that, I could not resist asking him about his recent deal with Amazon. Jeff Bezos, the first person alive to reach a net worth of $200 billion, received a lot of blowback for profiting from the pandemic. John sold his company to him in 2017 for a deal valued at $13.7 billion. Did he regret that decision? John likened it to a marriage. He loves nearly everything about his actual wife of 30 years. But like most couples, there is that one percent that he does not. The same is true of Whole Foods Market’s relationship with Amazon. If he could turn back the clock to 2017, would he do it again? Absolutely. Is it perfect? No. But like any relationship, it continues to evolve. And he continues to have an impact on the company as CEO.

Finally, I asked John if he could summarize in one sentence what he would want to impart to the next generation of corporate leaders following in his footsteps. 

“Put purpose first. Don’t get sucked into the game of business. Life is short. Focus on what’s most important.” A true power of slow statement from a man who has lived his passion for over 40 years. With conscious conviction based on a purpose-driven life.