It's Complicated: When A CEO's Personal Position Becomes Public

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The Mozilla controversy that played out over the past two weeks bursts with ironies. And this one is perhaps the most prominent: The free speech that Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich spent his life's work defending and enabling — and an open-Web revolution Eich helped lead — drove his unseating. It raises questions about how a company leader's personal convictions should be judged.

After a public, pitched debate over whether Eich was fit to lead given his 2008 donation to California's Proposition 8, which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman, Eich decided for himself that he wasn't. He resigned Thursday despite many Mozillians who came to his defense, in response to other Mozillians who called for his ouster.

The Web as it is today might not exist without the brilliant technologist Eich. He invented JavaScript, was an early architect of the Web and co-founded Mozilla, the company and foundation behind the popular Internet browser Firefox. His passion for the Web and its users has always been clear. In a late 2013 interview, he described his charge as "working on the Web and working on making sure the user is king or queen of their experience."

At Mozilla, putting users first, openness and inclusiveness are core to the organization's beliefs — and operations. Mozilla's technology is created in public — in stark contrast to its competitors like Microsoft and Google — and as it became clear when Eich was named CEO, its internal debates are quite public, too.

"This is an organization that is extremely transparent, where a number of employees had said, I don't feel comfortable being led by this person," says Anil Dash, a technology startup founder and a longtime Mozilla community member. "It's been polarizing because this seemed in contradiction to a lot of the values of openness that the organization helped create has espoused."

Eich made his $1,000 contribution to Proposition 8 in 2008, long before he was named CEO. But once he became chief executive, the interplay between a company leader's private position and that very public role came into sharp focus.

Suddenly, values of equal rights and free speech were pitted against one another. Eich tried to separate his personal views from his stewardship of the company and belief in its inclusive values, but still, many Mozillians questioned whether he was fit to lead. Another Internet company waded in to the uproar, too. The dating site OKCupid called for a boycott of Mozilla's Firefox browser over Eich's personal views.

"It's really important to think about the nature of the issue in question," says Amy Sepinwall, a professor of business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. She argues equal rights issues touch the lives of employees in ways other political positions may not. Employees could easily read that a donation to Proposition 8 is a declaration that gays and lesbians are inferior, Sepinwall says.

"The CEO's convictions do redound to the corporation, they are a reflection of the corporation, and as a result, he can't claim refuge or seek refuge in the fact that this is something that he did in his private capacity," Sepinwall says.

But should a personal position cost a leader his job?

"I think it's a dangerous trend when we start judging companies or CEOs by their political views," says Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University.

Cowen says the long-run result will limit free speech. "I worry that this will spread to more and more issues. Even if you support gay marriage, as I do, the next time around, it may be your issue that's targeted. And you may end up wondering, how much can I really speak freely? Should I write this blog post, what should I put on Twitter, should I make a political donation? We're entering a world that in many ways, privacy is disappearing," Cowen says.

Dash — the Mozilla supporter — says the larger lesson is more specific to this company, in this moment. It wrestled with its issues out in the open, and Eich, who didn't recant his gay marriage position, responded by resigning.

"What this does is introduces the idea within the tech industry that there is a sort of communal responsibility, and that leadership can be something that is evolving to respond to a community in the same way that software does," Dash says.

The company's future is now one without its co-founder. Eich didn't just step down as CEO; he left Mozilla, too.

"I'm leaving Mozilla to take a rest, take some trips with my family, look at problems from other angles," Eich wrote on his blog. "I encourage all Mozillians to keep going."

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