A CEO is a Leader: The Recent Mozilla CEO Kerfuffle

Experience comes for free. Learning takes effort.

On March 24th, Mozilla announced that they had named Brendan Eich as CEO.

On April 3rd, Brendan Eich, after much internet uproar over his $1000 donation to disallow same-sex marriage, stepped down as CEO of Mozilla.

So.

WTF happened here?

First of all, some facts…

  • FACT: Brendan Eich is well within his rights to support his personal beliefs through financial donations. Furthermore, that he did not back down from his position shows a strong sense of integrity. He was correct to do what he did. (ed. note: I very strongly disagree with Eich’s position on this matter and share Rarebit’s disappointment, but defend to the death Eich’s right to express his opinion.)
  • FACT: Team Rarebit and others were well within their rights to express outrage at the appointment. They were correct to say what they did.
  • FACT: Yet others were well within their rights to defend the appointment. They were correct to say what they did.
  • FACT: The Mozilla board of directors appointed Eich because they truly believed they were doing what was best for the organization. They, however, erred.

What appears to have happened is that the Mozilla board of directors misunderstood the role of CEO in an organization, particularly in a non-profit and mission-driven organization.

A CEO isn’t merely a leader; a CEO is a Leader. In a non-profit and mission-driven organization, a CEO is a LEADER. LEADERship extends far beyond merely setting technical and strategic direction for an organization. It includes becoming the very public face of everything for which the organization stands.

As an organization with a brilliant track record for supporting diversity and freedom of all sorts, Mozilla could not have a CEO who was on public record as opposing what a great many people see as a civil right.

Undoubtedly, as CEO, Eich would have continued his admirable track record of not allowing his personal political and religious beliefs to impact his professional performance. He had, after all, been CTO of Mozilla almost since the beginning and from all appearances his personal beliefs did not affect that performance. But being CTO is not being CEO. A CTO is responsible for setting and delivering the technical vision for an organization. One’s opinion on social issues is unlikely to come up in such a role.

A CEO, on the other hand, is responsible for setting and delivering the overall vision for an organization. This vision includes not only business strategy but also culture and mission. As such, a CEO’s beliefs must completely track with those of the organization which they lead. This is part of what makes the hunt for a new CEO so challenging. While a CEO’s personal beliefs may not affect the easily quantifiable parts of their job, (as we have now seen) they can have untold effects on responsibilities which, while more fungible, are no less important.

If there is any blame to be placed here, it is with the Mozilla board for not realizing this fact. They were aware that Eich had taken a public stance on an issue which could be seen as contrary to the Mozilla culture, yet they apparently did not see this as a potential problem for acceptance of him as a CEO. It was this ignorance and lack of awareness which led to the recent drama. Thankfully ignorance is curable. And undoubtedly Mozilla has had an effective dose of its medicine for this ailment.

There is no doubt in my mind that Brendan Eich has the experience, the vision, and the competence to lead Mozilla for years to come. He has proved that with his many years of experience as CTO. But from a cultural point of view he was, unfortunately, damaged goods. As such, the Mozilla board of directors should have refused delivery of the CEO package. If they had, they could have retained him, his passion for the open web, and his talents to help further the Mozilla mission.

Instead they are left with a learning opportunity and without the contributions of a founding father. Thankfully, the organization is populated by thousands of brilliant and insightful human beings. Mozilla will recover from this mistake, and even while recovering it will continue its work toward the open web. Those of us who agree with and believe in this mission should, now more than ever, support Mozilla. Let’s turn this experience into learning and continue to move forward.