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Grace & Gigabytes Blog

Perspectives on leadership, learning, and technology for a time of rapid change

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When OpenAI's board of directors fired CEO Sam Altman, they unwittingly torpedoed the company's founding principle: the independent development of AI. OpenAI was formed to create AI for the benefit of humanity, rather than the benefit of corporate shareholders. This explains in part why OpenAI remained governed by a nonprofit board.

At the time, it looked as though OpenAI's charter, which promised "broadly distributed benefits" and opposed "unduly concentrate(d) power," had failed. It looked as though the most poweful AI minds in the world would work for the unequivocally concentrated power that is Microsoft. Within 48 hours, Satya Nadella recruited Altman to form an AI research lab within Microsoft. Shortly thereafter, the vast majority of OpenAI employees began to threaten defections to the world's second-richest company.

Eventually, OpenAI reversed course and re-hired Sam Altman as CEO. But in the process, they parted ways with the three board members initially responsible for firing Altman. While their votes to oust Altman now appears nonsensical, their departure means that OpenAI loses the voices most likely to question the unchecked development of this technology. They were the voices most likely to see the risks in AI's development, to raise concerns over AI falling intot he wrong hands.

While details remain sparse, Microsoft may take one of their board seats. Other board seats are likely to be filled with directors committed to acceleration and adoption, rather than ethics and prudence.

The development of generative AI, it seems, will now be controlled by companies opearting under the default corporate charter: that of short term returns to shareholders. Kevin Roose perfectly summarized this development in his column titled: A.I. Belongs to the Capitalists Now.

The circus that consumed OpenAI in recent weeks reveals something of the nature of organizational life. All organizations, nonprofit and for-profit alike, are beholden to the inevitable powers of entropy.

Chaos and disorder are inevitable outcomes in any organization's lifecycle. Even if we create innovative governance structures, even if we write an altruistic charter, even if we staff our board with directors inclined towards ethical reflection - disorder finds a way. And as the development of technology accelerates, entropy arrives faster and faster. Organizational successes plant the seeds of future disorder.

The practice of servant leadership (really, all effective leadership) requires an awareness of how all organizations trend towards entropy. But recognizing the inevitability of chaos, he or she also affirms the potential for positive impact that is vested in organizational life. After all, Robert Greenleaf, the founder of servant leadership, didn't work for a small NGO, but was committed to "creating change from within a large institution."

Servant leadership is thus a balancing act: the ability to drive positive change within an organization, even with the foresight that things will tend to fall apart.

Disorder is inevitable. It is thus the task of the servant leader to prepare their organization for the inevitability of chaos. The servant leader has a repsonbility to their communities to buffer them agains the worst effects of disruption, teaching and solidifying habits of resilience. Even if the organiziation fails, servant leaders prepare their people to continue working towards the realization of their values.

The single most effective practice in preparing for the inevitability of chaos may be to discern core values - at the individual and team level. As individuals and as small, functional teams, core values can keep us anchored to our principles when everything else becomes unmoored. Our values keep us facing outwards when circumstances threaten to turn us inward. They instill a capacity for creativity when a situation pushes us towards reaction and passivity. They perpetuate our impact even if the broader organization crumbles.

In a time of accelerating chaos, servant leadership looks like a coach who accompanies their team on a perpetual process of discernment. Leadership is thus no longer just about showing the way - it's about returning us to our starting line, reminding us of our foundations. When chaos inevitably emerges, the servant leader reminds us what really matters.

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Nearly 50 years ago, John Lennon recorded Now and Then in his New York City apartment. Using nothing more than a boombox and his own piano, Lennon wrote what would become the Beatles' final song some five decades later. Lennon recorded the track through a single mono microphone, resulting in low quality audio that the band declined to release as part of their 1995 Anthology project.

Recent advances in AI made it possible to revisit Lennon's recording, isolating all aspects of the recording as separate tracks. This allowed the surviving two Beatles to add new vocals and guitar atop suddenly crystal clear audio, as if John were in the stuido with them today.

As I have listened and re-listened to Now and Then, I’ve read into the backstory of the song: Lennon’s composition, perhaps written as a statement of love and loss directed at Paul. The band’s decision not to release the track as part of the 1990s Anthology project. And finally, the arrival of new AI technology that allowed McCartney and Starr to finish and release the chart-topping track. 

And as I listen and read about the Beatles’ closing song, I can’t help but think that this track resembles, in no small way, what a life of faith looks like: our small efforts contributing to invisible transformation, one we glimpse in part yet do not experience in full. 

American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr said: 

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope… Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

Neibuhr’s quote had echoes of Martin Luther, who wrote in the Small Catechism that “The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.” 

God’s Kingdom breaks in slowly and silently. Our efforts, love, and service feel fragmentary and incomplete. Yet like John Lennon’s recording, they provide the raw material that will one day produce something wonderful, moving, even transformative. They become catalysts to future reversals and redemption that we may not be around to witness.

The Kingdom of God is like a Beatles song, released 50 years later in a way Lennon never would have expected. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, this powerful play goes on, and we may contribute a verse. Whether or not we see that verse added to song, whether or not we hear that song inspire and delight, the song comes nonetheless. 

The Kingdom of God is like a Beatles song. We create our verses. We may not ever press play on their recording. But they join the inevitable song of a band of witnesses, proclaiming grace, goodness, redemption - messages the world needs, both now and then. 


@ryanpanzer writes about technology, religion, and servant leadership. He is an avid Beatles fan.


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