What CEOs Can Learn From Sam Altman’s Triumph Over OpenAI’s Board
A year ago, no one was talking about AI. And now, it seems, it’s all anyone talks about—and more so than ever with OpenAI‘s recent firing, and rehiring, of CEO Sam Altman.
Released to the public in November 2022, the company’s AI tool ChatGPT ignited a barrage of media coverage. Headlines about the rapidly emerging technology became common, while op-eds warned of the dangers of a HAL-like entity taking over the world. ChatGPT now reaches more than 100 million monthly users.
But with this November’s explosive story about Altman, AI suddenly had an industry-defining tale fit for a streaming film if not a limited series. And the whole thing happened within a blink of an eye, or over a weekend.
Through it all, Altman maintained his cool, demonstrating the leadership qualities that have made him an ambassador for AI on the world stage and inspired the loyalty of hundreds of OpenAI employees. In this story we look at the communications successes and failures behind The Almost-Ouster That Shook the Tech World for Five Days (btw, our proposed title for the limited series). First, though, a look at what happened.
OpenAI vs Sam Altman, With a Little Microsoft Thrown In: A Communications Timeline
On Friday Nov. 17, OpenAI’s board issued a statement about Altman’s departure. In a blogpost, the board said:
“Mr. Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities. The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”
According to former OpenAI President Greg Brockman, the board spoke to Altman on a Google Meet, where Ilya Sutskever, an OpenAI co-founder and the company’s chief scientist, delivered the news.
In a statement late Friday, Brockman said that he and Altman were surprised by the company’s decision.
“Sam and I are shocked and saddened by what the board did today,” Brockman wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “We too are still trying to figure out exactly what happened.”
In another post on X, Altman said, “I love you all.” He added, “Today was a weird experience in many ways. But one unexpected one is that it has been sorta like reading your own eulogy while you’re still alive. The outpouring of love is awesome.”
The dismissal came as a surprise to everyone, not the least of whom was Microsoft. The tech giant has reportedly invested more than $13b in OpenAI and owns 49% of the company.
On Sunday, Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella announced in a blog post that Altman and Brockman “together with colleagues” would be joining the company to run a new AI research team.
Meanwhile, a wave of ❤️ emojis flooded X over the weekend from OpenAI staffers expressing solidarity and outrage at Altman’s firing.
Hundreds, including new OpenAI acting CEO Mira Murati, then posted the phrase: “OpenAI is nothing without its people” on X.
According to Wired.com, 700 out of 770 employees signed a letter to the board threatening to quit unless it reinstated Altman.
That was on Monday Nov 20. By Tuesday, Altman had been reinstated, and (most of) the board dissolved.
‘OpenAI is nothing without its people’: How Sam Altman Got His Job Back
Reportedly, Altman’s firing was over the pace of AI development and/or monetization strategies. However, the board’s vague language and general lack of explanation let speculation run rampant and fuelled doubt about the technology.
OpenAI also ousted Altman without consulting Microsoft. This did not go over well with the company’s main investor. Microsoft CEO Nadella did not know why Altman was fired, telling Bloomberg: “The board has not talked about anything that Sam did other than some breakdown in communications.”
In contrast, Altman (and Brock) maintained their cool. In their X posts they came across as blindsided by the events. They were able to take the role of the underdog. Altman became a martyr for the cause, and the media fed the perception of him as victim of a short-sighted board. And perception is 9/10ths of the law, to borrow a phrase.
But the real communications story is behind the scenes. It’s likely—though not certain—that the threatened mass exodus on the part of OpenAI’s employees led to Altman’s rehiring. So how was the 38-year-old able to inspire such loyalty?
Media stories about OpenAI and Altman paint a picture of a leader who is deeply involved in his company’s vision and culture. His energy and enthusiasm about AI, and its potential to improve humanity, have made him an influential leader. And, through his continued presence in the media and at public events, Altman—who owns no shares of OpenAI—has become the face of AI on the world stage.
Altman also seems to have that special CEO sauce.
“He’s super charismatic and super smart,” Eduard Cristea, the CEO of the real-estate-sales startup Holofy, told Business Insider. “Almost immediately, you kind of feel it.”
He also said, re: Altman’s communication style: “He’s really, really, really good at both being understood, but also understanding and asking thoughtful questions.”
Others have praised his “straightforward communication” and “incredible curiosity” dating back to Altman’s Stanford days.
The article goes on to quote Paul Graham, the founder of the famed Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator. Graham, who appointed Altman as his successor in 2014, described him as a “master of AI and persuasion.”
What CEOs Can Learn from the OpenAI/Altman Drama
However this falls out—and at the moment it looks as though the center is holding—there are lessons to be learned from The Five Days That the Tech World Stood Still (sorry, we can’t help ourselves).
- By staying focused and driven towards a positive wide-impact goal, you can inspire your employees towards the same mission.
- Developing your personal brand as a leader who gets things done, who is not afraid to challenge the unknown, who is forward-thinking, and who cares about your people, builds loyalty.
- A “straightforward” communication style builds trust.
- By staying cool and collected in your public-facing statements you can get people on your side.
- By building your brand as the face of your industry, you can garner support not just within your field but from the media as well. (There have been very few stories critical of Altman during this melee.)
Of course, we don’t know the full story at this point, and we may never know exactly what went on behind the scenes. More details will no doubt emerge in the coming weeks and months, and in the inevitable streaming dramatization. (“Jesse Eisenberg on line one for you Mr. Hastings.”)
Meanwhile, AI continues to concern government officials, scientists, and many in the tech industry. Time will tell whether Altman’s continued presence as CEO of OpenAI is a good thing or another step in the direction of total control by our AI overlords.