The Limits of John Mackey’s Brand of Enlightened Capitalism

Can Amazon-owned Whole Foods ever live up to its founder’s ideals?

David Zax
Marker
Published in
11 min readOct 19, 2020

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CEO John Mackey
Illustration: Franziska Barczyk

If ever there were a moment in which the leaders of corporate America have been exploring a more enlightened form of capitalism — debating it, promising it, testing it, debunking it, retracting it, reviving it, promising it again — that moment is surely now. John Mackey, a member of that class as the co-founder of Whole Foods and its CEO for the past 40 years, is perhaps one of the earliest proselytizers of a strain he calls “conscious capitalism.”

A free-market enthusiast and now Amazon employee, Mackey, early on in his latest book, Conscious Leadership, reminds us of the ethos that he has long championed. “One of the foundational tenets of Conscious Capitalism,” he writes, name-checking his 2013 book of that title, “is stakeholder integration.” For the uninitiated, he explains, a stakeholder is “any person, company or other entity that interacts with the business.” Old-fashioned shareholders — investors with stock ownership — are stakeholders. But so, too, under this more humane theory of business, are a company’s customers and employees (and arguably other groups or entities like suppliers and the environment), who ought to be served by a company’s efforts.

Mackey’s new book builds on his last one by offering readers a manual that might help them “operationalize” the belief in the essential goodness of capitalism espoused in Conscious Capitalism. Co-authored with Steve McIntosh and Carter Phipps, founders of something called the Institute for Cultural Evolution — whose website evokes a kind of Esalen in the Rockies — the book embraces a harmonious consonance between spirit and profit. It zigs from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to Sam Walton, then zags from Steve Jobs to Mother Teresa.

Organized around what the authors call the “nine distinguishing characteristics and behaviors” of leaders who are “striving to be more conscious,” Conscious Leadership urges leaders to put purpose first, lead with love, act with integrity, find win-win-win solutions, and five other characteristics and behaviors that each get a chapter of their own, imparting lessons through a mix of anecdotes and advice.

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David Zax
Marker

David is a writer, researcher, and consultant in Brooklyn.