10 Leadership Lessons from Mozilla CEO Firing

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There has been much celebration and consternation over the forced resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich.

Much of the commentary reflects surprise at the firing.

This sort of incident should surprise no one. It’s just one more indication among many that effective 21st century leadership is quite distinct from familiar, 20th century norms.

As Eich acknowledged in his departure statement, he could no longer be an “effective leader” under the circumstances.

21st Century Leader Lessons from Mozilla CEO Firing

The 21st century leadership lessons reflected in the Mozilla case include:

1.  Leadership Roles Are Converging.  Serve to Lead reports the convergence of various types of leadership roles that were once thought of as entirely separate. In a 2001 piece, “Corporate Politicians,” I wrote of the rapid evolution of expectations underway for CEOs. The capacity of companies to serve rising numbers of shareholders is accompanied by greater accountability. 21st century business leaders are now facing expectations of transparency closer to those of politicians than of the cossetted CEO’s of the recent past. These trends run across business sectors, as well as government and not-for-profits. What individuals in high positions in business actually do, day-to-day, is converging with the work of their counterparts in other sectors.

2.  Stakeholder Relationships Can be Wider and Deeper Than in the Past.  The Internet accelerates and provides a platform for organizing stakeholders with intensely held points of view. In the Mozilla case, as in other situations with companies in recent years, employees initiated and supported the expressions of concern from outside stakeholders.

3.   Values Create Value.  Many customers (including business-to-business) find value in advancing their own values through the products and services they select. In the case of Mozilla, consumer products such as web browsers are readily substituted. It’s essential that enterprises align as far as possible with the values and aspirations of their customer base.

4.  Private and Public Life Are Melding.  Brendan Eich apparently believed that his donation to a controversial ballot measure in 2008 would not be regarded as relevant in assessing his performance as CEO in 2014. Eich did not reckon with the fact that his private life had become, to a great extent, public property as he ascended to the greater responsibilities of the CEO position. Eich faltered in not forging integrity between his personal values and his service to his enterprise.

5.  Communication is a Primary Obligation of CEO.  Eich is, by all accounts, exceptionally talented and valuable as a technician. One suspects that he did not recognize that a core competency to create value as CEO today is communication. That means far more than putting out press statements after the fact. In a time when leadership is based, more than ever, on the capacity to influence, effective communication is foundational.

6.  If Your Communication is Not Mission Critical, It’s Self Indulgent.  As one rises in leadership responsibility, almost every action one takes can be viewed as a communication. Certainly a public donation to a controversial political campaign can be viewed as a significant communication. To the extent that one has great visibility, any communication that is not mission-critical, that is not aligned with enterprise priorities, is unnecessary at best, self-indulgent at worst.

7.  The First Amendment Is Not at Issue.  Brendan Eich, American, has an absolute right to free speech under the First Amendment. Brendan Eich, CEO, acted in a representative capacity, subject to the consent of various stakeholders he’s committed to serve.

8.  Where Was the Mozilla Board?  If public reports are accurate, Eich received scant support from his company’s board. This was the board that had recently selected him to serve as CEO. It’s in everyone’s interest that boards provide effective governance.

9.  Personnel Selection.  Eich’s 2008 donation had been a matter of public record and some controversy for some time. Did the board undertake sufficient diligence in evaluating this? Did the board focus on the skills and awareness that Eich would soon need?

10.  Leadership Training is Essential for New CEOs.  There is a paradox in selecting high positional leaders. On the one hand, it’s clear enough that no one can be fully prepared for the challenges of a high level CEO position in any sector. There is always more to be learned, areas where one must grow. On the other hand, the confidence of the new CEO herself, as well as those who selected her, may occasion some to overlook the urgency of preparation. It may have been presumed by Eich and others that his history with the company meant that he required little or no training for his new role. If so, this may have been a fatal error in judgment.

10 Leadership Lessons from Mozilla CEO Firing