CEOs need to lead by making decisions. That’s their role in an organization: to be the singular decision-maker when group consensus won’t do the job. Mozilla is a big company and an even bigger community, so having someone around who can think at a high level and make executive decisions is important. It keeps the company clear of circular discussions or group paralysis. I think Mozilla is without a CEO today not because of Brendan Eich’s donation in support of Prop 8, but rather because he failed to lead effectively as CEO.
Brendan Eich stepped down as CEO at Mozilla today, April 3, 2014, seemingly in response to calls for him to resign over his stance against gay marriage. The mob might think that they’ve “won”; a lot of community members and press already interpret this development as Eich stepping down in direct response to his support of Prop 8, but I think it’s more nuanced than that.
The Face of the Company
The title CEO stands for Chief Executive Officer–a CEO’s job is to make decisions on behalf of the entire company; to execute. Though Eich’s stance on gay marriage is something I find exclusionary and generally awful as a queer guy, I don’t think it’s why he can’t be Mozilla’s CEO. While I would prefer my company’s CEO be socially progressive, Eich’s battle is already lost and he has never injected his views into company culture, hiring practices, or community discussions. For Mozilla, a company whose mission I care deeply about, I want a leader who can make tough decisions, be mindful of the future, and run a company well more than anything else. His views on gay rights anger me, but they have little practical effect on my life.
Being on the losing side of history this one time is okay, because I’ve seen Eich be right about many things during just my tenure at Mozilla. He’s wrote eloquently on issues affecting the web and Mozilla’s interactions with closed standards. On a technical level, he is thoughtful and experienced. I would say his overall track record coming in as CEO was solid.
What made me realize he was not ready to lead Mozilla–or any company–was his damage control article on CNET.
The Correct Answer was “Yes”
There was a lot of discussion inside the Mozilla community regarding public sentiment and press articles–many of which equated Eich with Mozilla. This left many Mozillians feeling like they were being attacked for a belief they didn’t hold, simply because it was held by their CEO. Speaking for myself, it was frustrating being painted with the same brush as Eich–I’m a bisexual guy who works at a company that promotes total freedom on the Internet (and thus in some ways the world). Being labelled as someone who works for an anti-LGBT company stung.
In the CNET interview, when asked what his current views on gay marriage are, Eich dodged the question. When asked if he could do it all over again, knowing what he knows now and what the backlash against Mozilla would be, he did not state that he would do things differently. He also refused to commit to be clearly against gay marriage, instead reiterating his party line of “let’s leave our personal opinions at the door.” Instead of addressing the issues at hand, he very clearly dodged them. I’m really not sure why and I’m at a loss to even speculate. Every one of my friends said that while they didn’t agree with his position, if he just apologized it could have been the end of it.
Eich was given the clear chance to publicly apologize on behalf of himself and Mozilla–something called for by many, including myself. When asked if he could do it all over and do it differently: the correct answer was “yes”. But he didn’t say he would do it differently.
It was at that exact point in time that he failed as CEO.
That CNET article was Eich’s chance to apologize, to make things right, and to speak on behalf of Mozilla–as its newly-minted CEO, not as Brendan Eich.
In his first test as CEO of Mozilla, he failed to execute. So while I think his donation to Prop 8 spurred the controversy and exposed his inability to think as Mozilla’s CEO instead of as Brendan Eich, I don’t think it was his stance against gay marriage in his home state of California that should be named as the cause of his departure.
I’ve already noticed many of my colleagues expressing their conflicted feelings about Eich’s resignation. To me: there is no conflict, though there is perhaps some disappointment.
I think if Eich had apologized, expressed regret, and attempted to repair the negative image painted of Mozilla, he might still be CEO. He could’ve shown that he could put Mozilla first, that he could swallow his pride to appear fair, and that he cared about the mission more than preserving his privacy over a public donation.
So while the mob might feel like it won, proving that there is some kind of zero-tolerance for homophobia in America, Eich’s departure from Mozilla tells a slightly more nuanced story than that.
I’m not conflicted about this, even if it is saddening. While I was hopeful of Eich’s ability to be our CEO, to lead us, and to be the face of Mozilla as we launched ourselves into exciting new places, it was clear to me over the past week or so that he was not suited to that role. I’m sad–deeply so–to see him go. Brendan Eich invented the language I use for my job every day, he was a brilliant technical mind, a protector of the open web, and a founder of Mozilla. I wish he didn’t have to leave.
And while I was conflicted about having a Prop 8-supporting CEO, I was not conflicted about having one who couldn’t tackle an issue like this head-on. I advocated last week that we talk about this issue, calmly and openly, hopeful that a positive discussion would come of it and things could be better than they were. This plea was largely aimed at detractors of Mozilla and Eich who wanted him to resign rather than recant, explain, and apologize. But it applied to Eich as well.
I guess the discussion is over now. Let’s all get back to work. The world needed a Mozilla that was open, but now Mozilla needs you too.
In case it’s not clear: I work for Mozilla.