John Mackey, Co-CEO of Whole Foods, and Marc Gafni on ‘The Unique Self of Business’
Author: Michael Ellsberg
As featured on Forbes.
John Mackey, the co-CEO of Whole Foods, is the author (with Raj Sisodia) of Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business of Capitalism. Philosopher Marc Gafni, Ph.D., president of the Center for World Spirituality, is the author of Your Unique Self: The Radical Path to Personal Enlightenment.
While these are very different books, the authors have been in dialogue for years now about interesting crossovers in their thinking. In this dialogue, we captured some of the new ideas the two thinkers are pioneering for the future of business, centering around their concept of “The Unique Self Business.”
Michael Ellsberg: One of the things that was clear to me reading Conscious Capitalism was the focus on systems. That was the theme that just kept leaping off the page, and what was different in your perspective than that of the average manager. Instead of analyzing each component separately with separate metrics, you have a strong emphasis on seeing the entire system, within the business, but also beyond the business: how the business relates to all of society and the environment. Would you agree that systems thinking is a central theme of the book?
John Mackey: It’s definitely one of the central themes. The stakeholder approach to business sees integration rather than separation, and sees how things fit together. Analytical intelligence—the type of intelligence that it taught in school, which carves things up into little pieces to understand them—is crucial. But it is limited. I use the metaphor of a cadaver in medical school. They carve it all up, so you understand how things divide up into parts, and you gain a great deal of understanding that way. But remember, it’s a dead cadaver—it’s not alive. The 100 trillion cells that make up that body are not living any longer, they’re not interacting. Studying a cadaver won’t tell you very much about wellness.
Similarly, the way most people approach business—and the way they mostly teach in business school—involves the analytical mind. It divides it up and looks at parts in isolation. In contrast, in our work, we’re trying to show how everything fits together in the larger system. You have to manage the system. Most good leaders intuitively know this, they’re just not conscious of it. They understand that they’ve got to take care of their customers. They get that their employees can’t take care of the customers well if their employees aren’t flourishing. And they get that they need to treat their suppliers well, which provide them everything they don’t produce themselves.
Most managers get this. The next step we took was to see how these all fit together. Once you begin to grasp that they’re all interdependent, then you begin to grasp that the best strategy would be to optimize the system. That was a Eureka moment for me—many years ago when I grasped this, I got up and ran around the house and figured it out. “Oh my God, you’ve got to manage all of these things together. You’ve got to try to optimize the whole system!” I still think that it’s a revolutionary idea.
First, I could hardly believe it. Surely there must be trade-offs, right? That’s generally the criticism you hear about the stakeholder model. The analytical mind usually thinks in terms of tradeoffs. So the thinking goes, if you’re doing things for the customers, then maybe it’s not good for the shareholders. If you’re helping one person, someone else must be losing. Zero-sum.
The idea that in the system, if you manage it in an optimum way, all of the constituent parts of the system also win, flourish, and benefit, is intrinsic to business and even to capitalism itself, properly understood. But people don’t understand it because we’re not taught to think that way. If we’re not taught to think that way, we don’t see it.
Ellsberg: Why do you think so many managers have trouble seeing this way? It seems like an obvious point yet as you say, it’s actually a revolutionary idea in the business world.
Mackey: I puzzle about this a lot. I would have long conversations with people and they just couldn’t get it. They couldn’t get past the analytical mind. What I concluded was, systems thinking takes hard work. It doesn’t come naturally, it doesn’t automatically happen. It’s something that you have to develop. You have to work on it, you have to practice it. To learn the violin, you can’t just pick up and play; you’ve got to practice it. In the same way, you’ve got to practice systems thining. Until you do, this won’t make sense.
When you talk to people about the stakeholder model, you get some people saying, “This is so ridiculous, this will never work, this is such BS, this guy must be some New Age hippie.” And then they see that I’m very successful, and so it calms them little bit. Then other people think, “Duh, this is so obvious, I don’t know why we even bother to state it, it’s a tautology.” It’s interesting that you get people that think it’s utterly ridiculous, and others that think that it’s so obvious that it doesn’t need to be stated. It all depends upon whether you have a systems mind. If you have it, you see it automatically. You can’t explain how things work in a system to somebody who can’t see it. They’re blind to it, they can’t see it.
Ellsberg: One of the problems is that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to develop metrics relevant to complex interactions of interdependent systems. The whole analytical model is based on simple cause and effect.
Mackey: Yes, the analytical model does not do well with multiple causes and multiple effects and interactions and interdependence, and feedback loops. What you can do is measure each of the stakeholders, in terms of how well they’re flourishing or not. Your typical business just measures the metrics that have to do with the profitability of the business one way or another. But you can have metrics that measure employee happiness and the morale. You can also do direct customer surveys, you can track it over time, you can do supplier satisfaction scores as well. I would say that we have barely scratched the surface in terms of the types of the metrics that can be developed relevant to the stakeholder and systems model. I think over time, as stakeholder thinking and the systems mind spreads, I think we’ll see lots “metrics entrepreneurs,” so to speak, who are creative and come up with ways to measure overall flourishing of the system.
Ellsberg: While metrics are obviously important, in some ways, even the urge to reduce everything to metrics seems like part of the problem. There are certain qualitative things that are very subtle and can’t be captured well even on surveys. I mean, imagine if you tried to run a marriage on metrics…
Mackey: I’ve got good news for you, I’ve taken a survey and we’re doing well! [Laughter] I think that’s very true. The analytical mind is saying, if you can’t measure it, it’s not real. And yet we know that there are things that don’t lend themselves well to measurement, but they’re still real. It’s hard to measure love, but there’s hardly anything one could imagine that’s more important than love. And yet you can’t really measure it. I can feel it. I can know whether a store has got a good energy or whether they’re afraid or whether they feel safe—whether they’re happy, whether there’s a lot of love… I can feel it when I’m in there, but I’d be hard pressed to quantify it.
Ellsberg: Probably the most common criticism of the ideas in Conscious Capitalism is that, “This is all so idealistic, but it will never work in the real world. ”
Mackey: If that were true, it would be a damning criticism. Because nothing succeeds in business like success. If ideas win in the marketplace, they spread. If they don’t win in the marketplace, they tend not to spread. So, the biggest criticism of conscious capitalism by people who are skeptical is, “Yeah, that’s great but it won’t really make money.” It’s seen as a philosophy for losers.
But, as I discuss in my book, conscious businesses outperform in terms of higher morale, in terms of better customer satisfaction, in terms of greater supplier loyalty, in terms of their community philanthropy and care, in terms of their environmental impacts. And they outperform economically. That’s why I know that conscious capital ideals are going to spread. Because they’re going to win the marketplace.
That’s one reason why I wanted to talk to millennials. We wrote the book really for millennials. The millennials will create the conscious businesses in the 21st century. They’ll transform the world. And we want them to know that they’re not being suckers. This actually is a better way of doing business, not only from an ethical standpoint, but also from a financial standpoint. When that word gets out, we’re going to have a very rapid transformation.
Ellsberg: Marc, while your book is not explicitly about business, in many ways it covers the same themes as John’s book. It’s all about the interdependence (rather than opposition) of the individual and the whole.
Marc Gafni: The concept of the separate self, a strong individual identity distinguished from family, clan, tribe, kingdom, emerged in the Renaissance. Interestingly, not long after, it emerged in business. All of the sudden, corporations aren’t just extensions of the king, who takes profits and puts them back into the treasury. All of the sudden, the corporation emerges as an individual identity with a life of its own. These two developments changed the entire trajectory of economic emergence.
So, you’ve got the separate self of the corporation, if you will, and you’ve got the separate self of the individual. Both are conscious of their uniqueness, but neither is conscious of also being embedded in a system. It’s an attitude of, “We’re going to survive. We’re going to get the best we can.” Hobbes’s notion of a world of war where everybody’s got to claim what they can. It is a zero-sum game. I get more, you get less.
But then as you develop, as you emerge more deeply, and as business emerges more deeply, we begin to realize, “My business is part of this larger system of stakeholders—stakeholders being community, and environment, and their kids, and the next generation and all of the suppliers and all of the customers and all of the employees. I’m part of this large system, and we’re all interconnected.
But that realization does not require you to then collapse and lose your individuality into the system. On the contrary, your unique self, as an individual, and the unique self of the business, are part of the system, part of the whole. You begin to realize: “If I wasn’t here, it would be a value proposition that wouldn’t be offered in the world—my business has a purpose. My life has a unique self. My life has a purpose. There’s a unique expression of the creative intelligence of the world that lives uniquely as that business, that’s not being expressed and can’t be expressed, by anything other than that person or that business. So, the business really is a self. Just like the person’s a self, and they’re actually very, very parallel.
John really awakened in me a core intuition that was nascent but needed more information to flourish, the inherent goodness of business. I grew up in a liberal culture in which business is demonized. This seemed counter-intuitive. Business, after all, supplied jobs and human dignity to so many people. Upon reflection, it became clear to me that business has actually lifted more people out of poverty than any other force in history. Business has lifted more people out of survival needs and allowed them to evolve their consciousness, allowed them to engage in higher levels of consciousness, higher needs. Business actually feeds families, allows girls to get an education, and creates the context for meaning, in which most people are living today.
However, every business needs to measure itself against the same high standard that every human being does: having a unique purpose, a unique gift to give.
One of the topics of John’s book, which moves me greatly, was just the description of several billion people on the planet whose needs aren’t being met adequately. When you say, “whose needs aren’t being met adequately,” that’s a nice way of saying that they’re starving. 20 million children died of hunger last year, and there are 17 million actual slaves in the world. The world’s filled with horror as we sit here.
Where’s the solution going to come from? It’s not going to come from bureaucratic government. It’s going to come from unleashing the unique selves of as many people, and as many businesses with purpose, on the planet as possible. This is where conscious capitalism and unique self begin to cross-pollinate. Each idea needs the other and together something very powerful, creative and good emerges.
Conscious capitalism rooted in the recognition of the infinitely creative unique self of every human being is a critical evolutionary attractor, serving the evolution of the good, the true and the beautiful. One of the shared key realizations that are beginning to emerge from our conversations, is the game-changing concept that a corporation, like an individual, has a unique self. Just like an individual awakens to their unique self so does a corporation.
Just like there are at least two versions of self: the small or egoic contracted self which views itself as separate from the larger contexts, vs. the more awake unique self which experiences itself as the irreducibly unique expression of the seamless coat of the universe. In a direct parallel to ego vs. unique self in the individual, there is the ego vs. the unique self of the corporation.
There is the egoic self of the corporation rooted in what is called the shareholder model, which views itself as a relatively isolated monad seeking its own prosperity, needing to interact with others only for its own interest, vs. the corporation awakened, to its own unique self which sees itself as offering a unique value gift to reality and yet views itself as enmeshed in its larger context. The unique-self corporation operates based on what is called the stakeholder model—of which Whole Foods may be the leading model—in which all of the stakeholders are viewed as interdependent, all part of the larger interconnected whole.
Mackey: Conscious capitalism is the process of waking up individual leaders to their purpose, to their higher purpose within the large systems that they’re part of. But, it also aspires to do more than that. It wants to wake the corporation itself up. In a sense, there is a self there. Whole Foods Market, for example, has a self. I got this fairly early on because I’m the father, the creator—and it has a destiny apart from me. The saddest thing is when parents get their children to do what they want to do and be perfect reflections of them, and they haven’t recognized the unique self of their child. They’re narcissists, they see the child as just an extension of themselves.
A lot of entrepreneurs can do that with their corporations. They see it just as an extension of themselves. It is important to understand that you may have been the father or mother, the creator, the entrepreneur, but that it has a unique self.
But most corporations are not awake to their own unique self. They are not awakened to their higher purpose. Why do they exist? The default answer, and this is why corporations are so disliked and distrusted, is that they’re profit machines. Or as the documentary The Corporation tried to show, they’re sociopaths who are basically running around, exploiting people, taking the resources of the world, dumping toxins out, just for their own gain. Like an ego run amok. Instead, corporations have to awake their collective consciousness to their higher purpose.
It reminds me—I remember watching this Star Trek episode a long time ago. They run into some kind of powerful robot spaceship, a nomad, and it’s purpose was simply to reproduce itself, and part of what they had to do was get the robot to its consciousness, that it had a higher purpose, it had a higher mission. Well, in a sense, that’s what we have to do with corporations, because they have to awaken to their own unique self, their own higher purpose, and their own destiny. My generation hasn’t done that. It’s a good task, frankly, for your generation. It’s a good task to create unique-self conscious businesses. And we have to transform the legacy ones, or get rid of them, because they often behave like sociopaths.
Ellsberg: I think probably whatever resistance that you’ve gotten to your message, from the liberal side, has been that people see so many of these unconscious businesses that are—as you said—kind of these disconnected egos, polluting rivers, colluding with corrupt third world governments, these kind of things, all in the name of maximizing profit. What is going on there when a company feels that it has no connection to the earth, has no connection to human rights, no connection to anything other than itself. It is just sort of running amok. What’s causing that?
Mackey: It’s asleep. It just hasn’t awakened yet, it’s not conscious yet. That’s why consciousness is such a good metaphor for it.
I’ll tell you an interesting thing that I learned in the book world, about who likes the message and who doesn’t like the message. It’s very surprising to me. I thought that I would get a lot more pushback from business people. I didn’t. I got almost none. When the business people get this message, it’s more of an enlightenment, an awakening and it’s like “Yes, of course, this makes total sense.” I expected that the business people would think that this is soft, this is wimpy. But no, the business people love it. I’ve been thanked hundreds of times by business people.
Young people also get it. The millennial generation gets this. They grin, they get excited. The people that are resisting this idea are people of my generation, who already have a mental model in which “business is evil, and it’s greedy and it’s selfish and it’s exploitative,” and they don’t want to give their mental model up. They’ve invested too much in it. That’s why you’ve heard that saying, “progress in society generally occurs one funeral at a time.” I’ll say that I’ve kind of given up on my generation. I think that my generation’s got ideological lock-in at this point. The solutions are there, but they don’t want them. To have to think and change their worldviews is difficult, and most people that are older don’t want to do it. That’s why I think that it’ll really be the creation of the next generation. I talked about this yesterday when I was down at this conference that Arianna Huffington did. Someone asked, “How can we change the big corporations?” And I said, “We don’t have to change them. They’re going to die. They’re a dinosaur, and they’re going to go extinct. Some of them will change, but they’ll be rare. What will generally happen is you’ll have these entrepreneurs create these new businesses, following new models.
How many people were on Google 15 years go? It barely existed 15 years ago. How many people were on Facebook 10 years ago?’ It barely existed ten years ago. So, what ends up happening is you create new businesses, and they change everything. That’s why it’s essential that you begin to create these more awake businesses. There’s a parallel with the unique self: conscious business leaders help a conscious business to awaken, but a conscious business helps everyone that interacts with it to awaken. It’s a very powerful vehicle for awakening.
Gafni: An evolutionary strange attractor.
When you talk about business it is simply wrong to identify business by its lowest common denominator. How do you identify what humanity is? Do you say “let’s take the greatest sages and seers, Buddha and Lao Tse and Moses and the best of people and say that’s humanity?’”Or should we take the mass murderers of the last hundred years and say “that’s humanity.” Obviously, what we’re going to say is that humanity in it’s highest is what humanity truly is. The lower expressions are distortions of humanity rooted in fear, trauma and ignorance. If Plato had one important idea it was that evil is rooted in ignorance. Modern psychology has added trauma and distortion to the list. But humanity as its core is humanity at its best.
So, the conscious capitalism corporations are, on the business side, the expressions of the business self in a way that the seers and great saints were in the individual human self-side. In other words, we basically look to the greatest thinkers, the greatest embodiments and say “that’s the strange attractor.” That’s what the system’s moving towards. And one of the key things that those great saints have done is that they’ve actually given to the world a vision of what it means to be an awakened human being.
Now let me take this one step deeper. The vision of the great sages and seers of enlightenment was true, but partial. It was accurate, but limited. Because of its limitation, which I will explain in a moment, that vision of enlightened self, suggested by most of the great traditions, has been in large part rejected in contemporary modern and postmodern culture. That is a great loss, because the enlightened vision of self really is a critical strange attractor to call forth the emergence of the evolved human self. The problem is that the part of the vision that does not resonate in contemporary culture is so fundamental that the baby got thrown out with the bath water.
Let me explain. The enlightenment world, so strong in Eastern religion, which is now fairly popular in certain sectors of the cultural creative population in the West, has become irrelevant to the larger mainstream, because the enlightenment world’s vision is primarily about awaking to true self. True self is the singular that has no plural, the merging of identity with the greater One. Classic Eastern or mystical enlightenment is about realizing you are not a separate self, but rather you are part of the One. Separation is an illusion.
Now watch something super cool unfold here! Paradoxically the word enlightenment is also used in the West—Western enlightenment—but in an opposite way. The Western enlightenment says that you are a separate self, you are not defined by any larger context. This freed the human being from the church and king. The Western key to Western enlightenment is that the source of your dignity is being a separate self independently valid, not dependent for your dignity and value on any larger context.
So there is this huge contradiction between Western and Eastern enlightenment. You have two movements in society calling themselves enlightenment, saying pretty much opposite things. The Western enlightenment says your separate self is the source of your value and dignity and identity, while the source of your suffering is having your identity defined as being inseparable from a larger context. The problem with the Western position is that is true but partial. You are not merely separate. The most subtle and speculative minds in every great tradition—validated poetically by systems theory, chaos theory complexity theory and much more—all affirm that you are not merely separate, you are in you very core identity inseparable from the whole and identified with the whole.
Now get this. The Eastern enlightenment folks say the opposite of the Western folks. They say that your identity as a separate self is the source of your suffering, and your wider identity with the larger context is the source of your liberation. Just the opposite of Western enlightenment. Now the Eastern mystical approach is—no surprise, right—also true but partial. You see you are not merely part of the one, as the East suggests you are, also distinct and individual.
The way to integrate these two great insights is to make an essential distinction in the nature of distinction itself. There are two different ways you can be distinct. You can be separate or you can be unique. Both the East and the West lump them together. The East says they are both bad and the source of suffering (separate self and unique self are viewed as synonyms). The West also views them as synonyms, but they are viewed as the course of your value and dignity. Because in the classical Eastern mystical teaching, separateness is identified with uniqueness, uniqueness is thrown overboard. Your uniqueness is thought to be an obstacle you need to overcome. It is a function of your conditioning.
Key to our breakthrough in Unique Self teaching is to correct the conflation and distinguish between separateness from uniqueness. You need to move beyond your separate self to overcome suffering. You realize your identity with your true self. But then you awaken more deeply and realize you are a unique expression of true self. Your uniqueness is actually a robust essential identity on which you can build your life, whether that is the unique self of the individual or the unique self of a corporation. That is the great source code evolution of Unique Self. The key is that uniqueness is not a function of my separate ego self, or of what is called conditioning, but rather uniqueness is an expression of essence. This allows us to re-embrace uniqueness as an enlightened expression of essence and not merely as a function of separation and contraction. That opens the door for the unique self and the unique self-corporation as essentially and vital expression of essence and spirit.
Just as the concept of the unique self is redefining the structure of what it means to be a human self, the concept of the unique self corporation is redefining what it means to be a corporate self. Conscious capitalism is redefining the very ethical basis of business, but it’s more than the ethical basis of business. It’s redefining what the optimum business looks like. It’s fostering a new positive and accurate myth of what business is, which serves as a new evolutionary attractor for the future of business.
Mackey: I totally agree with everything that you said. As we create manifestations in the world of conscious organizations—not just conscious businesses, because it can be… the next book that we’re working on is called conscious society. We need conscious governments, we need conscious non-profits, we need conscious organizations. Culture permits people to go higher quicker because the environment that they’re in helps lift people up, because the environments that they’re in helps lift people up. Of course, the culture, if it’s a toxic culture, will hold down the people. That’s why it’s essential that we have more than this individual enlightenment type of metaphor—you go off and you become enlightened and study under a guru and it’s very much mysterious and you do these practices. It’s an awfully slow way for humanity to advance.
We’re in a period of time right now where the whole planet is under massive stress. Our economy is under stress; we’re bankrupting ourselves incredibly rapidly. We’re under very intense stress. It’s also a great opportunity, because the stress does bring out more creativity and innovation and what not. So, we can’t afford to wait for the old paradigm of the individual enlightenment. It’s too slow.
That allows for transformation to occur fairly rapidly. It might’ve taken decades and decades and decades before but I think now it can happen much faster. It’ll be because organizations collectively are resonating in this much higher way, and then they help lift not just their employees up, but everybody that interacts with them.
Gafni: Now, let’s introduce a new idea. Let’s call this new idea by two complimentary names: the democratization of enlightenment and the democratization of creativity. Both enlightenment and creativity used to be for the elite. The elite were the only enlightened and creative ones. The rest of us were just doing our thing. But the concept of unique self suggests that we actually have to democratize enlightenment, meaning that every human being is an awakened unique self. And every corporation can actually awaken to become a conscious capitalism corporation, that is, a corporation enlivened with profound competitive advantage, because it is formed by the radical creativity of all of individuals in the company.
This tracks to exactly what John describes at the end of his conscious capitalism book—the decentralized model of Whole Foods, in which basically you’ve got this intertextured layer of teams, and all of the teams have a strong level of autonomy. They’re trained and empowered with a lot of mastery, and each has its own purpose. Because it’s decentralized, everyone feels a sense of autonomy, a sense of power in the best sense of power, and they’re able to unleash their creativity. So, Whole Foods has unleashed probably an exponentially larger dimension of creativity than almost any other company around. Now compare this with a company in which only the 30 people in the most senior leadership roles are truly creative. So, all of the sudden, you’ve got 80,000 people who are creative. So that’s democratization of creativity, which is part of the same impetus as the democratization of enlightenment.
Mackey: The reason that corporations haven’t wanted to democratize creativity is because they’re so terrified of it blowing out of control. There’s such a strong desire to control things, so they damper it down, they make rules. But the trick is, you can’t simply democratize creativity unless the creativity is naturally guided by the shared core values of the corporation. You don’t control it in a sense through command and control, but the higher purpose of the organization is what aligns the energies and the creativity moves towards the unique self of the employees, and the of the corporation.
Ellsberg: This is, I thought, one of the most interesting points in your book. I’ve never seen it elsewhere. If you ask most CEOs “What’s your purpose?” You’ll get an answer like, “to maximize shareholder value.” It’s completely generic and it doesn’t actually speak to what they’re doing. What you said is, “we start with a clear purpose.” It’s this paradox that people seem to not be able to get their heads around, or a lot of people can’t get their head around. “We start not focusing solely on money, and we’ll actually end up making more money, because we’re doing something that we care about and we’re passionate about.”
At one point, I heard you say something like, “we hired our first investors.” Now that, to me, is a really interesting viewpoint, because instead of saying, “We’ll take whatever money we can get, whatever they think that our business should be, whatever their attitudes are,” instead you’re saying, “No, this is who we are, and if you want to invest in our business, you need to understand that these are our values, this is our purpose, this is what we’re up to, this is how we run things.”
How does that work, now, however, being a public company where there are all of these regulations and a fiduciary duty? Does that change it?
Mackey: No, because this is the best strategy to maximize profits and long-term shareholder value. Most of the rest of them are failing at this goal—because they’re making shareholder value their most important goal, but they aren’t achieving it. They’re actually letting shareholders down. The Whole Foods way, paradoxically, results in higher shareholder value. That’s the clever way of saying it, but the more accurate way of saying it is that Wall Street is agnostic about purpose. As long as you produce good results, then they tend to think that it’s a good idea, and Whole Foods Market has been amazingly successful from almost the very beginning. Conscious business tends to be very successful financially and so Wall Street loves us. This is clearly the trend of the future, as everyone wins.