Sam Altman has engendered a surprising degree of loyalty from OpenAI staff.
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
Sam Altman’s ouster has been so unpopular that most OpenAI workers have threatened to quit. The discord reveals a rare level of loyalty to a CEO, leadership experts told Business Insider.OpenAI’s small size makes it more likely workers would push back against change at the top.
Well, that didn’t go as planned.
The decision by OpenAI’s board to toss aside the company’s cofounder has proved so unpopular that basically everyone has threatened to quit. It’s a remarkable and uncommon show of support for a top dog at a company, leadership experts told Business Insider.
Sure, there are other CEOs whom workers respect and revere. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, already popular, has scooped up Altman faster than someone newly single could set up a Hinge profile. A titan like Jamie Dimon draws endless attention as head of JPMorgan. And Warren Buffet is an institution.
“I don’t know anybody who has this degree of loyalty, affection, and respect,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at Yale School of Management, told BI. “He proves that you can be both loved and respected. And that’s a remarkable accomplishment.”
Of course, the employees of OpenAI are eminently employable, Sonnenfeld noted, because so many organizations are eager to poach people with expertise in artificial intelligence.
Sonnenfeld, who’s also founder of Yale’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute, said often in tech, people tend to be more wedded to the work they do rather than to their leaders. “They aren’t usually so caught up in an individual,” he said.
There was little dustup, Sonnenfeld noted, when Apple cofounder Steve Jobs got pushed aside in the mid-1980s before his ultimate return to the company. “In terms of the affection, while Steve Jobs had a lot of loyalty, there was no mass defection when he was replaced,” he said.
There are CEOs who reach a 10 on the popularity scale though it’s not the norm, Sonnenfeld said. He pointed to Ken Frazier, former CEO of drugmaker Merck as one. Indra Nooyi, the one-time head of PepsiCo, was up there, Sonnenfeld said. He also added Marc Benioff, the chief at Salesforce, to his list.
“Benioff has gone through some difficult restructuring in the last 10 months. And yet everybody has stayed with him,” Sonnenfeld said.
In Altman’s case, there are additional forces fanning workers’ outrage, Stephen B. Young, leadership expert and author of “Kissinger’s Betrayal: How America Lost the Vietnam War” told BI. He said the small size of OpenAI — it has just under 800 employees — likely added fuel to the staff revolt. “Emotions and personalities play a much greater role in the small company,” he said.
And because OpenAI is a startup, it doesn’t have a well-defined trajectory that a more established company would have. So changing captains early in the game can have a larger impact on how things play out. “In your bigger company, that’s all pretty well institutionalized,” Young said.
Beyond that, if some OpenAI staff thought they were getting in at the start of the next Facebook or Google, it’s no surprise they’d be upset by the removal of the person charged with getting the company there, Young said.
Sonnenfeld said while the anger over Altman’s dismissal has been striking, so has his rapid ascent to the tech stratosphere. “There’s nobody more respected in the world of technology today,” he said. “And most of us had never heard of him a year ago.”