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Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz

Posted: January 4, 2010 03:54 PM

John Mackey: The Anti-CEO

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In this terrific New Yorker profile of wacky Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, we learn a lot about the history of Whole Foods, but even more about the strange and complex thread of ideas that Mackey has distilled through the years in his effort to reinvent the grocery business. Best read in conjunction with The Omnivore's Dilemma, which seriously pissed off Mackey for its portrayal of Whole Foods as not much more than a well-market cog in the industrial food machinery.

I loved this profile because Mackey is so clearly an odd man out in the Club of CEOs. Compare him with the snapshots of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon in the excellent investigative report about the staged theft of Washington Mutual by JPMorgan in the latest Puget Sound Business Journal.

But the point is that while Dimon is a smooth corporate operator who seems entirely immune to self-doubt, much less self-immolation, Mackey seems to be incapable of taking a step forward without landing on someone else's toes. He is a dick in his personal relations with his employees. He spews free-market and anti-environmental rhetoric that is entirely at odds with the values of most of his customers. He unabashedly admits to a preoccupation with sex (with the implication that he has been serially unfaithful), while self-consciously embarking on a series of spiritual journeys clearly meant to heal a hurting heart, bone of a disappointed mother and a verbally abusive and domineering father.

Remarkably - given his public missteps - Mackey remains CEO and evinces a remarkable capacity to survive crises by embracing them at their root and essentially challenging his detractors to push him off the cliff, because he will not take that long step on his own. The profile is a remarkable case study of how iconoclasm and angry, self-subverting individualism can exist even amongst the CEOs of multi-billion dollar corporate behemoths.