When a Leader Knows to Say, “No.”

On November 2, Whole Foods Market CEO, John Mackey, sent a letter to all employees announcing that the salary cap policy on executive compensation would change. He said "No" to their unprecedented policy of capping salaries at 14 times the average pay of Whole Food employees. (A typical FORTUNE 500 company pays its executives at least 150 times the average pay of employees.)

What he said "yes" to was raising the cap to 19 times the average pay in order to marginally compete with headhunters who were trolling his leadership team in an attempt to buy away executives. Nineteen times? Thats hardly a huge jump. But his announcement spoke volumes for realizing the realities of the marketplace while-at the same time-saying "no" to the pressure of becoming like so many other top-heavy-in-pay companies. In an era where the consuming public is horror struck by executive compensation and buy-out packages (often without any evidence of performance), Mackeys "no" earned customer and employee approval.

He also did more. He made the unprecedented statement that the success of Whole Foods Market was far beyond his wildest dreams and had provided more than he would ever need for financial security or personal happiness. At the age of 53, he announced that he would no longer work for money but for the sheer joy of the work and the service. "Beginning on Jan1, 2007, my salary will be reduced to $1 and I will no longer take any cash compensation... The intention of the board of directors is for Whole Foods Market to donate all future stock options I would be eligible to receive to our two company foundations." ( Fast Company Feb 2007)

I read his letter with astonishment. How many leaders do YOU know who would cut themselves off from the gushing well of prosperity and say "it is enough"? He also signed his letter, "with much love, John Mackey: LOVE!? He signed his letter with LOVE? Now how does that tilt your thinking?

The cynics among us and among Wall Street will look for an ulterior motive. Those of us who work in organizational development and see what happens when executives actually live their values will whisper a silent prayer of gratitude. Values are a powerful force in an employees decision to stay or leave. People are far more likely to quit over conflicts with values than over low pay.

Were desperate now for leadership models that offer hope instead of black humor. We yearn for leadership awareness of the rank and file instead of isolation in a board room. And as consumers, were putting more and more of our buying power into companies who recognize the worth of employees, who think green, who pay a living wage, and who give back to the community.

Business can be a profound force for good. Best of all, we dont have to wait for the CEO to make a move, Everyone has a leadership opportunity to conduct our individual book of business-whatever that might be-- in a manner that supports and sustains our values while doing good and doing well at the same time.

In this year, what will be your "no" so you can shout a better "yes"?

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