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Whole Foods chief defines a ‘pioneer’

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in Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

When he started out, John Mackey just wanted to make a living selling wholesome food.

“Did I start out wanting to change the world or change people? Of course not,” says the founder of Whole Foods Market. “It would take a total megalomaniac to do that.”

But he had been on a quest for some meaning and purpose in life, and Mackey found them in what he calls becoming a “conscious capitalist”—that is, focusing on purpose rather than profit.

His purpose—getting people to eat organic, sustainably grown and raised foods—morphed from one tiny natural food store in Texas to an $8 billion enterprise.

Mackey’s pioneering idea is that self-interest and altruism can not only coexist but thrive together. At Whole Foods, for the most part, they still do. All the same, he doesn’t make a big deal of it.

“It’s not like you go up to the mountaintop and God talks to you: ‘Here is your purpose—execute,’” he says. “It is something you discover and also create.”

This is Mackey’s definition of a pathfinder:

“Pioneers are the ones who have to hack through a jungle and create a road,” he says. “The only thing that frustrates me sometimes is that I feel like I’ve been hacking away with a machete in the jungle for the last 30 years, and sometimes people come up and say, ‘Man, this is as far as you’ve gotten? You should have done more.’ ”

Easy to say if you’re not the leader.

— Adapted from “The Miracle Worker,” Danielle Sacks, Fast Company.

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