top of page
  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Servant Leadership Lessons from Open AI's Firing and Re-Hiring of Sam Altman

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.

24 views0 comments


bottom of page