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Can You Weather a Leadership Crisis?

The recent chaos at OpenAI has put a spotlight on splits between boards and CEOs. It’s a reminder to keep your eye on mission—and check egos at the door.

Hopefully, you’re unlikely to experience the kind of leadership crisis that recently consumed the artificial intelligence firm OpenAI. In the course of just a few days, CEO Sam Altman was ousted by OpenAI board; the board proceeded to swap in one new CEO, then another; staff threatened to quit en masse in response to the moves; the board resigned, and the new one brought Altman back to the job.

The reasons for all the chaos that led to Altman’s ouster in the first place remain vague. But whatever the reasons, it’s plain that OpenAI wasn’t organizationally equipped to handle the crisis. “Clearly our governance structure had a problem,” Altman told The Verge last week, in a lead candidate for an understatement-of-the-year prize.

Clearly our governance structure had a problem.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman

Altman added that “designing a really good governance structure, especially for such an impactful technology, is not a one-week question.” No doubt, OpenAI needs some time to settle. But I’m not convinced that there’s something inherent in OpenAI and its much-discussed pioneering technology that makes its governance structure more complicated. The issues brought before Altman’s company are no different than the one your association faces: How do you establish a meaningful mission, develop a board with the capacity to strategize intelligently around it, and create a leadership culture that can implement it?

Rifts like the one at Open AI suggest that one key problem was top-down behavior. Marketing executive Christine Haas told Forbes that the unilateral, unexplained firing of Altman “was clearly an example of autocratic leadership…. It also builds more fear among the naysayers of AI in general.”

It’s also likely that there was a problem with communication around the organization’s goals. “There has to be a shared understanding [on the board] about what performance looks like, and there also has to be an incredibly high level of trust that the CEO is the right person for the job,” Gartner Principal Alexander Kriss told HR Dive last month. “Conversely, the board of directors is going to respect the CEO’s performance. They’re not going to act capricious; they’re not going to make a quick change based on a short-term run out of results.”

Again, we don’t know all the details. But it’s not hard to imagine that an organization like OpenAI was at a crossroads: Blessed with rapid and explosive growth, it had plenty of options—but, perhaps, the lack of clear vision of which options it wanted to choose. In that case, the problem doesn’t lie exclusively with the board, or with the CEO. It rests with their inability to communicate and agree, to trust in their strategic plan in spite of inevitable disruptions. 

A little humility on all sides wouldn’t hurt either. It’s telling that Altman, after finishing his interview with The Verge, felt moved to call the reporter back. He had one more thing to share: “The company can truly function without me, and that’s a very nice thing…. I come back without any of the stress of ‘Oh man, I gotta do this, or the company needs me or whatever.’” Whatever is going to settle the clash of egos at OpenAI (or any organization), it will likely start with the acknowledgement that the organization’s goals and the people they serve—the members, the customers—are more important than the identity of any one person at the top.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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