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What John Mackey can learn from John Wayne

John Wayne

I just finished watching "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon," John Ford's valentine to the U.S. Cavalry. It's a good movie, not a great one, not the equal of "Stagecoach" or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," both of which serve less cheese with their meat. I've been watching Ford westerns lately because they had an enormous impact on the Japanese samurai movies of the 1950s, which in many ways offer the greatest explorations of corporate life ever, equal to Shakespeare's plays in their understanding of organizational behavior. Watch Kurasawa's "Sanjuro" sometime if you want to see what I mean. The last five minutes, in its exquisite mix of swift violence and perfectly replicate at least one Board meeting I recall from the late 1990s.

Be that as it may. In "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" John Wayne delivers a nugget that precisely mirrors a comment that just came in from Me Again of Seattle, who I'm guessing is writing to me under a fake name, like most of you do. Me Again's observation was about my thoughts on the subject of John Mackey, the green, leafy head of Whole Foods (WFMI), who was caught pumping his corporate mojo on a chat board under an anagram of his wife's name. "He should of never apologized for what he did," writes Mr. or Ms. Again. "If you are going to do something like that, one should never apologize and by doing so is admitting to guilt on something that he shouldn’t have to admit guilt for. We live in a country built on free speech."

Free speech? Whatever. If anything, the quality of speech on the web goes beyond freedom into license. The real issue in our vast and thorny media culture is the utility of apology. And on that matter, my belief is more clearly set forth by the Duke to a raw recruit: "Never say yer sorry, Mister," he growls. "It's a sign of weakness."

We live in an culture of apology. Apology, sometimes tearful, sometimes not, followed by rehab of some kind, usually, or a highly publicized prison stay, and after that a certain pleasant amnesia as we all turn our attention to new miscreancies we can feast on. At times, these apologies are enough, and many naughty boys and girls are reinstated, if we like them, or they are pretty, or good enough copy. That's the way it's supposed to work, anyway.

More often these days, though, the reward for apology seems to be a higher level of punishment for he or she who shows a pink, tender underside to the beast. The cycle has shifted. Apologies seem to enrage the creature, not mollify it, until the sorry apologizer spirals down into the doom that his or her weakness virtually demanded.

The big maw isn't satisfied by a simple "I'm sorry" anymore. Perhaps only the kind of apology that will be accepted at this point is the samurai version explored in the classic Japanese movies I love, where all the blood is black on white, the moment when the hero or villain, in recognition of fate or his own misdeeds, quite literally falls on his sword and reels back into good grace with his guts falling out all over his hands. Whoops! Ouch. All is well.

Those who don't apologize do better, I think, all things considered. Two individuals come to mind who might have apologized if they listened to the wrong advisers. The first is Barry Bonds. He's the only player who has suffered under intense scrutiny on the use of performance enhancing drugs and did not buckle. All the others who have, who stepped forward, talked with Congress, the press, their mommies? All toast. Did they in any way benefit from having unburdened themselves? They did not. And then there's our Commander in Chief. Many might say that in the course of his Presidency, he may have done some things for which he might have apologized. Katrina. WMDs. That kind of thing. But has he ever offered even the slightest sigh of remorse? Nope. And you know what? I think it's working for him. In 20 years, I expect to see history books that bear no resemblance to my perception of what's going on right now... because nobody has apologized for anything so far, and created that record.

I'm going to suggest that everybody who lives in the line of fire consider this strategy real serious, like. "Never say yer sorry, mister," no matter what stupid thing you've gotten yourself into. "It's a sign of weakness."

And weakness, my friends, is the one sin we just can't seem to forgive.

14 Comments Add Comment

This is one of the most idiotic articles that I have ever read as related to a publically traded company.

I agree with previous comment. How come it's ok for all these bloggers or media to critisize John Mackey whatever way they want.

BTW: I am using a fake name

I've said it before here and I'll say it again. Sadly, in 21st century America where any attempt to cooperate with the authorities is fraught with perjury traps and publicity-minded cynical lawyers playing their gotchya games, the only thing to do when confronted with your questionable behavior is to get a lawyer and clam up. Public apologies are just fodder for special prosecuters.

Howard, your post has no value.

Bing, this was a good article, about an issue that has bedeviled many. Another I'd like to see is, since when did the media's role change from reporters to judges?

Personally I too was disappointed - and rather surprised - by Mackey's abject apology. But he's no dummy, and no slave to his lawyers - or WF's board. I have to believe he felt an apology was the best tactical move he could make at the time. Obviously, it changed the tone of the debate.

Great article, please disregard Howard from Naw'lins, unfortunately rampant inbreeding, and unquestioned loyalty to Jeff Davis, take a terrible toll on mental development.

You are very right. But let's clarify who does the crucifying after the apology: it is the liberal, PC establishment. Those fuzzy, wuzzy sensitive folk who will whack you if you cross them. Talk about intolerance.

Apologize, and they circle like sharks rather than respecting your hubris.

Never say your sorry? Really. What if Pete Rose had simply initially said "You know, I did bet on baseball. And, I'm sorry for doing it." My bet is that he would be in the hall of fame.

Further, if Bill Clinton would have said, "You know, I messed up and I'm sorry. I did have sex with that woman", we would not have spent two year of our nations time chasing the issue.

Finally, if Martha Stewart would have said at first "I messed up. I'm sorry. I should not have traded on that inside info", I'd speculate that she would have simply paid a small fine and not have spent time in the slammer.

John Mackey exercised poor judgment and recognizing this, he's showing that he is human by admiting his mistake and trying to move on.

Like Barry Bonds John Mackey is full of himself. Unlike Bonds Mackey did nothing wrong!

Mackey is sorry; he doesn't have to say so. A CEO who is addicted to blogging lacks focus. No wonder WFMI is such a laggard. Plus Mackey has singlehandedly jeopardized the Wild Oats merger with his jawflapping. I'm out of there.

Lesson learned! I love it. Something to really think about oh' great Samurai of business. Something they don't teach you in business school and all of the reasons why I read your books. To that point though o’ great sage of business and corporate dynamics…How should one address a situation like that? If you aren’t apologizing, how do you orchestrate the next sentence that comes out of your mouth? I’m really asking for some coaching here. I use to not apologize THEN I wound up working for a couple of (sincerely) incredible executives…I had to learn to fall on my sword gracefully, sometimes for my benefit and sometimes for theirs, sometimes multiple times a day. I thought it was working for me until (ironically) recently – when last week I started to question this within myself. So, perfect timing for the topic…and now oh’ great one I ask what does Confucius suggest on the moments proceeding (being not a 100% right) the “not apology”?

Whole Foods a "laggard" stock? Sounds like somebody that bought in 2006/07. Its been a great long ride up and the ride is far from over for long-term holders.

P.S. C-A-P-I-T-A-L-I-S-M and the free thinking world folks...oh my get over it...or move to another country that regulates and sensors. Perhaps Stanley is onto something, why should we have to apologize? How's that. Self accountability is one thing but why do you have to be held publicly accountable for everything? How many of us blogging on this site want to be held publicly accountable when half of you don't even use your real names. (by the way C is my real name). Oh my!

Every investor should already be aware of intentional and unintentional sound bites from sources directly and indirectly involved in the transaction. To think corporations only "use" their PR departments and/or open media to make points and enhance their perspective is naive and dangerous.

Your not allowed to use my name!