When it was revealed that John Mackey, the celebrated founder of Whole Foods Market, had posted hundreds of messages, using an alias, over an eight-year period on Yahoo finance message boards — some blasting competitors, others lavishing praise on himself (even his own haircut) – most were shocked.
How could the subject of such business hagiography, an entrepreneur who transformed the face (and the aisles) of supermarket retailing, a vegan who made the organic lifestyle the New American Badge, a passionate advocate of small producers who introduced us to more kinds of honey than we thought there were bees, behave in well, such an inorganic fashion.
After all, Whole Foods Market is all about transparency. You know in sometimes excruciating detail about where you persimmons and your pork chops come from, but in the case of John Mackey’s opaque postings, you were completely in the dark about where they were manufactured them.
I view this turn of events as the dark side of passionate entrepreneurship. Mackey lived and breathed his business so profoundly, and he is such a competitive animal, that he simply could not resist the temptations dangled by the Internet’s fortress of anonymity. And once having been seduced by being able to hide in plain sight under the user name “Rahodeb” – a scrambling of his wife’s name – Mackey just kept going and going and going.
Recently, I read about a sociological study which found that our personality traits are amplified in the online world. Introverts become more introverted, and extroverts become more in-your-face. This is clearly the case with Mackey, who by all accounts is a fearsome competitor without the comfort of anagrammatic doppelganger.
But probably the most fascinating and telling quote I’ve read about the whole episode came from Mackey himself. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mackey said “his anonymous comments didn’t reflect his or his company’s policies or beliefs. Some of the views Rahodeb expressed, Mr. Mackey said, didn’t match his own beliefs.”
That’s pretty amazing, when you think about it. Mackey moved beyond using Rahodeb as a mouthpiece for himself, as a vehicle for bashing Wild Oats and its then CEO Perry Oldak, and onto a meta level of performance art where he used his alias to try on different viewpoints and test different arguments. There was something irresistibly seductive in the sheer thrill of pretending.
That such a successful entrepreneur – one for whom a cultural of ethical behavior has long been a business imperative – could be driven to these levels of clearly inappropriate behavior is a cautionary tale. This risk isn’t that we’re going to see a string of copycat behavior. Far from it. The risk, rather, is that unbridled CEO involvement with a business, fueled by the competitive landscape in all categories, and stirred by a culture that tolerates bad behavior, will create disturbing levels of entrepreneurial acting out in oth”er ways.
Mackey was able to hide for a long behind his bad behavior. Other CEOS may not have that luxury.