Lessons on Power Dynamics from the OpenAI Saga – Sam Altman’s Firing to Reinstatement in 5 Days

The OpenAI Saga is well-known to all. This article is not intended to retell the story, which has been covered well in the media, but to help understand the power dynamics underlying the conflict.

On November 17, 2023, Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and the creator of ChatGPT was fired by the company’s board of directors over Google Meet, citing a loss of confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI. This was a shocker for the tech world, as there was no prior indication of any conflict between Sam Altman and the board of OpenAI. Rumors and speculations abound that the battle is all about “misalignment” between OpenAI’s for-profit side, represented by Altman, and the nonprofit side, controlled by the board.

In the next few days, the tech world witnessed rapid changes when OpenAI CTO Mira Murati was appointed interim CEO, only to be replaced by former Twitch executive Emmett Shear. Meanwhile, many investors of OpenAI, especially Microsoft, were not happy with the sudden exit of Altman as CEO and wanted his return. Additionally, many senior researchers at OpenAI announced their resignations from the company in support of Altman. While negotiations were underway to bring back Altman as CEO, Microsoft almost ‘acqhired’ Open AI when Satya Nadella announced that Altman and his team were joining Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team.

As an anti-climax, OpenAI announced on November 21st that Sam Altman was officially back as CEO and the vast majority of the board of directors who fired him were gone! All this boardroom battle ended in 5 days.

Understanding Power Dynamics

If media speculations were true, the OpenAI board’s concern about Sam Altman’s focus on the for-profit part of the organization rather than the non-profit motive like AI safety is commendable. However, most of the board members lost their positions for having taken a hasty decision without understanding the underlying power dynamics and the priorities of various stakeholders. Investors, including Microsoft and employees, strongly believed that the continuation of Sam Altman as OpenAI CEO was essential to realizing their interests.

“Having a position of formal authority or even being right is not going to win you the support of those whose mistakes you have called out. It is tough for those in power to see the world from others’ perspectives—but if you are going to survive, you need to get over yourself and your formal position and retain your sensitivity to the political dynamics around you.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, “Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t,”

The OpenAI board was blindsided by their views and probably underestimated Sam Altman’s influence vis-à-vis their own. Their ignorance of power dynamics was visible when Mira Murati, announced by them as interim CEO, backed out and pushed in favor of bringing back Sam Altman as CEO.

Never giving up is one trait that has saved Sam Altman. Generally, when someone gets fired, they tend to feel embarrassed and blame themselves for what happened, based on our belief in the just-world effect – that we get what we deserve. By doing so, we let our opponents dominate the discussions of what happened. But Sam Altman did not give in to that feeling. While he was graceful in the situation, he was working on his plot to return to OpenAI rather than blaming himself for the situation. On the other hand, Ilya Sutskever, the OpenAI co-founder and chief scientist who reportedly initiated the whole conflict, publicly apologized for the whole episode and regretted his participation in the board’s decision to fire Sam Altman, further alienating public perception away from the board and in favor of Sam Altman.

Sam Altman was wise enough to fire the majority of the board after he was reinstated as CEO of OpenAI, rather than burying the hatchet and buying peace. By getting rid of his opponents, Sam Altman has cemented his position at OpenAI further.

The board would have saved their jobs had they read Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, “Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t!”

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