Ask the White Guy: CEOs Beware

Eich, Hanlon

Brendan Eich recently lasted two weeks as CEO of Mozilla and Dartmouth University President Philip Hanlon is on the ropes following controversies that are worth dissecting. Both men are caught up in controversy around “diversity” issues. Although many mainstream media people expressed surprise or disbelief, the combination of dramatic demographic shifts in our country and free social-media communications has enabled mass mobilization of public opinion that is decisively in favor of diversity.

Eich was one of the cofounders of Mozilla, the open-source software company that created the brilliant Firefox browser. He was elevated to the CEO position by the board of directors but came under immediate criticism for his donation in support of Proposition 8 (which banned same-gender marriage in California). Eich made some fumbling, half-baked responses and quickly found himself on the outside looking in. It wasn’t just that Eich was clearly on the wrong side of history’s momentum—polls show that more than half of Americans support same-gender marriage—his personal opinions directly effected his ability to lead a community of contributors in Mozilla’s open-source world. He may be a great software engineer, but his retrograde opinions were not only diametrically opposed to a significant group of Mozilla’s constituency, his donations contributed to hurting people—not a great way to lead a cooperative software-development team.

As of the printing of this magazine, Dartmouth President Hanlon still has a job, but you have to wonder if he can hold on to it. He let things get so out of control that a group of students seized his office in an overnight protest—what the students wanted was a response to their “Plan for Dartmouth’s Freedom Budget: Items for Transformative Justice at Dartmouth.” This protest could be easily dismissed as the actions of just 30 or so “extremist” students, but what underpinned their efforts was a women’s group that was able to pull in 50,000 signatures on a petition demanding Dartmouth “take sexual assault seriously.” The board of trustees voted for mandatory expulsion for sexual assault—but this was provoked by the federal government’s opening its own investigation into the situation at Dartmouth, in addition to a student-launched Cleary Act investigation.

Aside from one administration spokesperson trying to tell the protesters that the president was merely the fundraiser-in-chief, the statement from the president himself was contradictory: “Their grievance, in short, is that they don’t feel like Dartmouth is fostering a welcoming environment. I met with these students yesterday and again today, and I deeply empathize with them. I made it clear, however, that meaningful change is hard work. Progress cannot be achieved through threats and demands. Disrupting the work of others is counterproductive. Academic communities rest on a foundation of collaboration and open dialogue informed by respectful debate among multiple voices.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 were all progress achieved directly through “demands” and “disrupting the work of others.” And if academic communities rest on “a foundation of collaboration and open dialogue,” why did students feel so thoroughly excluded as to be motivated to occupy his office

Unorganized social media were extensively used by the opponents of former CEO Eich in contrast to organized social media used by the opponents of President Hanlon. It’s interesting to note the use of video streaming at Dartmouth and the connections among a relatively small group of students—and among tens of thousands of supporters, organized by online petitions. I think it’s also noteworthy that Mozilla’s board of directors and Dartmouth’s board of trustees were rapidly pressured into acting on the respective controversies.

A CEO’s opinion is not his/her own; it belongs to the organization he or she leads—and it impacts the stakeholders, from employees to shareholders. In my observation, Baby Boomer leadership often misses the cues. The hippy generation, when in charge, behaves much like the generation its members distrusted—but this time, the younger generation has the power of instant mobilization, from the comfort of their smartphones. A fair warning would be to not take solace of the support you receive in the executive committee. Keep your eye on the younger people who will overwhelm your position so quickly that you will have only one chance to react—at best.

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