It’s Different for Leaders: Lessons from Mozilla’s CEO Appointment

It’s Different for Leaders: Lessons from Mozilla’s CEO Appointment

Mozilla appointed a new CEO, Brendan Eich, last week, and a lot of good people are feeling troubled by it.

They’re wrestling with wildly conflicted feelings and convictions. They’re doing the hard work of trying to reconcile their deeply-held respect for diversity and freedom with itself, as freedoms of belief and expression hit painfully up against human rights for LGBTQ people. They’re struggling to figure out the right ways to express their opinions and act in integrity with their values. They’re having really, really difficult conversations with each other where they’re trying to listen thoughtfully without capitulating, and to express themselves clearly without pontificating or railroading each other.

And amidst it all, there are some important lessons to be learned about what leadership means – and where the boundaries between personal and professional lie for people at the helm of an organization.


The story in a nutshell, for those who haven’t heard it yet, is this: Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, a co-founder of Mozilla and highly respected member of the community, donated to a “Yes on Prop 8” campaign in 2008. There’s real tension here between Eich’s personal politics and Mozilla’s organizational values, because while Mozilla prides itself on having one of the most diverse communities anywhere – including along political lines, since its staff, contributors and user base cover a massive range of perspectives and backgrounds, including people with conservative, libertarian and liberal persuasions – it also has a reputation for being highly inclusive and supportive of its LGBTQ staff and offers equal health benefits, an anti-discrimination policy, and has been (and continues to be) supportive of diversity initiatives.

While many of the blog posts from Mozillians that I’ve read emphasize strong support for Eich’s right to hold whatever personal, political views he wants, there are a lot of people saying they’re uncomfortable with his appointment as CEO. I can’t possibly summarize the discussion accurately here, but I’ll point you to Erin Kissane, JP Schneider, Tim Chevalier, Christie Koehler, Mark Surman, Chris McAvoy, Myk Melez, and Matthew Riley MacPherson as examples of the kind of thoughtful and considered conversation that’s taking place in the Mozilla community right now.

What a lot of people are hinting at (and in some cases, saying outright) is this: The standards are different for a CEO. 

That may sound unfair. It’s not.

It’s different when you’re a leader. You’re held to a different standard – and so you should be. You’re accountable to act consistently with the organization’s core values, and on behalf of the wellbeing of its stakeholders, including staff and volunteers. And that accountability extends to your personally held beliefs, because they become highly relevant to everyone else in the organization when you are steering the ship.

The distinction is about power. As an employee amongst many, a single person’s views and behaviour do not have the same impact as they do when that person is the Chief Executive Officer. When you have the power to set direction for the company, the impact of your behaviour is amplified.

The CEO sets the tone for the entire organization. And while I’ve read Eich’s assurance that all of Mozilla’s initiatives to stand by its LGBTQ employees and contributors will stand, I understand those employees’ skepticism about just how that’s likely to play out. We don’t want our leaders to simply say, “Everything will stay as it is – promise.” We want vision and forward movement. We want to feel confidence that we are deeply valued. And we certainly want to feel confident that our leaders have our back when it comes to our human and civil rights.

(Let’s remember, this is a very different issue than if Eich had supported the NRA, PETA, Greenpeace, a niche religious organization, or, I dunno, some other cause on which people disagree sharply. We are talking about financial support for a campaign that actively tried to suppress the rights of people who work for and support Mozilla. There is a substantive distinction to be made between this and other political causes. To put it another way, your CEO’s contribution to dirty coal lobbyists probably doesn’t interfere with your private, everyday life to the same degree that his support of anti-equal-marriage legislation could.)


So: Mozilla is in the midst of a crisis of values and leadership. What are the lessons for leaders – or would-be leaders – everywhere?

First, you don’t need to be perfect, but you need to be 100% accountable for your actions. When you step into leadership, you take responsibility for creating a safe, productive space for everyone who works for you. When you wield power, the degree of accountability you hold for acting with integrity and consistency goes way up. This doesn’t mean you need to have a flawless track record, but it does mean that you should expect to be held accountable for the impact of your actions.

(This is why I recommend that leaders articulate and share their core values with their teams – so that the entire group can hold each other accountable to those values. We can’t possibly expect to be 100% consistent about living up to our own expectations, but we can invite help to do better.)

Second, power changes everything. A friend once told me that stepping into leadership means making your peace with not getting invited out to lunch with your colleagues anymore. Lest this sound like a “lonely at the top” pity party, I simply mean that it’s disingenuous to ignore the realities of power dynamics. When we claim leadership roles, we gain a great deal of power and privilege, and we must also make small sacrifices, such as giving up the easy camaraderie that’s possible when you don’t have firing power, or the ability to have your political contributions go unquestioned.


Postscript: If it’s not already obvious, I love Mozilla, I have friends who work there – or have in the past – and I believe strongly in its mission. I care a great deal about how this plays out, and I’m sending a lot of love to those hashing it out in and around the organization.

I’m not going to weigh in on what ought to happen next at Mozilla. People with far more knowledge and wisdom about Mozilla than I have are working that out. It’s nothing if not complex – and as Dan Gillmor and Anil Dash tweeted a few days ago, it’s pretty wonderful to see Mozilla engaging with these questions so openly and publicly, with consideration and nuance, passion and resolve. Would that more organizations encouraged this kind of conversation and open dissent. 


Update, 2014-04-03 @ 8:42am: Some commenters have asked me to clarify my statement that Prop 8 is different from other divisive issues. Here’s my take on this – and I fully expect that many will disagree with it: If Prop 8 had succeeded and the US had remained a country where same-gender couples were unable to access the rights afforded to married couples, many of Mozilla’s US-based staff would have been directly affected: their spouses would have been unable to immigrate; they would not have the right to visit their partners in the hospital; and so on. While, yes, some of the other issues I listed affect Mozilla employees, I would argue that those effects are felt less personally, for the most part, than for people who have been treated quite literally as second-class citizens and denied rights afforded across the board to any straight person. That is why I’ve used the language of human rights here. An employer taking a stand that s/he does not support equal rights feels deeply personal, even when that employer is someone you respect and trust on a professional level. And that’s what I’ve seen in the blog posts I’ve read: Not that people don’t respect Eich, or trust him, but that this is very personal and tough to simply “get over” or “move on” from.

Second, I want to reiterate that I’m not calling on Eich to resign, or for Mozilla to take any particular action. I keep returning to the word “accountable,” because I think that’s the path forward: It’s about acknowledging the impact of his actions, not about erasing them or pretending to have changed his mind or any other kind of attempt to sweep this under the rug. Accountability is not a code word for facing the firing squad – at least, I didn’t intend it that way. It’s simply about taking responsibility for one’s part in a situation, and working to make it right. I don’t feel equipped to judge what “making it right” looks like at Mozilla; my observations are on the distress I see in the community and what lessons can be gleaned from that, both within Mozilla and for other leaders and organizations.


  1. bob

    so you don’t need a leader but an actor. that’s a pity if you as me, and very dangerous.

  2. Nicolas

    Let’s generalize this to all subject : Israel, animal rights, colonization and wether or not America should give back its land to native Indians, etc, etc…

    The obvious attempt to impose one’s personal political view in a professional context is so blatant that it raises just one question:

    Does Mozilla has a mission worth on its own, or not?

    If so it should be protected from outside destabilizing influence of which this is one of many possible.

  3. Michael Smith

    Good points in general, but in this case I think it’s necessary to point out that Eich has been a leader for a long time. He’s one of the cofounders. Whatever impact he was to have on Mozilla’s culture, he has had ample opportunity to make that happen.

    It seems clear to me that Eich (whatever his beliefs in other areas) has prioritized the open web over other things he cares about. He gave $1000 to a pro-prop 8 campaign, but he seems to have spent a large portion of his career defending the openness of the Web. (A Web, mind you, that serves very much as a platform for the censure of Proposition 8 and it’s supporters.) The open internet is a current, grave matter of free speech as opposed to a done deal of LGBTQ rights. Based on his history, I trust Eich to focus most of his leadership on protecting this part of free speech, not on making things difficult or uncomfortable for his associates who disagree with him.

    Prop 8 is not coming back, but while we’re arguing about Eich net neutrality has practically become defunct and Safari and Chrome have become the mobile browser of choice. We need to check our priorities too and let Mozilla get back in the game.

    Please excuse any typos, I wrote this on my phone.

    • Lauren

      Hi Michael – I strongly agree that Mozilla’s mission is critical, and I also think that the notion we can’t have vigorous disagreements on one topic while also moving other issues forward is built on a false notion that there’s a limited number of things we – that is, the communal we – can simultaneously care about and act on.

      I might also quibble with you about the idea that LGBTQ rights are a “done deal,” but I know what you’re saying: They are legally protected, at least to some degree, and yes, the Prop 8 battle appears to be behind us now. That said, there’s a great distance between dissolving legal barriers and erasing all forms of discrimination – as we can well see in the discrepancies that exist along the lines of race, gender, class, ability, and so on.

      I definitely take your point about Eich’s leadership at Mozilla not being new; what I’m trying to sketch out here, though, is a picture of how the stakes rise in parallel with the degree of power we wield. Everyone at Mozilla reports to the CEO. That’s a significant jump over the number of reports he had as CTO, and it means a whole new group of people are now more directly affected by his actions.

  4. Jono Smith

    You wrote, “The standards are different for a CEO.” Or are they just different for Brendan Eich?

    I don’t recall any Foundation or Nonprofit CEO who bundled donations for Bush/Cheney or Romney/Ryan being held to the same standard.

    • Lauren

      The landscape here in Canada is pretty different on the nonprofit/foundation front, but having worked extensively in the nonprofit sector here (and a little in the US), my experience is that nonprofit leaders are extensively vetted for “values fit,” which essentially means that your personal politics better match the organization’s, or you’re not likely to get the job.

      • Jono Smith

        Lauren, that’s a great point. Why would Mr. Eich want to be CEO of an organization whose core values are not aligned with his own? Something doesn’t add up here.

        • Lauren

          In his defence, I get the sense that there’s a pretty small gap between Mozilla’s core values and Eich’s – after all, he co-founded Unfortunately, that small gap cuts pretty deep in this instance. The tension between the 99% fit and the 1% gap (obviously I’m just pulling those numbers out of thin air, for illustrative purposes – not suggesting we can quantify the gap) is what makes this such a challenging situation. If it were a bigger gap, I doubt he’d have been named CEO in the first place.

  5. Henrik Ingo

    I agree with the title of this post, standards are different for leaders.

    I’m a bit surprised by your examples though… Sure, there are probably many LGBT people working for an organization like Mozilla, but surely Mozilla is not in itself about promoting LBGT rights more than a decent employer is expected to? Why would it be more ok to have supported a fringe religious group, let alone coal lobbyists than supporting prop 8? Surely there are ateists working at Mozilla too? And quite certainly all Mozilla employees breathe? Not to diminish LGBT rights, but why is that a more important issue than many others? Did I miss something fundamental about Firefox, which I use daily?

  6. Peebee

    The Mozilla Foundation is a California not-for-profit headquartered in Mountain View. The California Labor Code, sections 1101 et seq., prohibits discrimination on the basis of an employee’s political activities or affiliation, and may not take any action “Controlling or directing, or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees.” This includes an attempt to “coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence….employees through or by means of threat of discharge or loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity.”

    There could not be a cleaner Labor Code case than one where an employer forces the resignation or apology of an employee due to their political activity (or chose not to hire the employee for the sole reason that he or she engaged in political activity). In fact, not only would the employer be liable for civil damages, but also faces criminal liability, as it is a misdemeanor to violate this section. So should Mozilla’s board have violated the law in either not hiring or firing the person they concluded was best suited to run the organization (an open source Web-based organization which isn’t routinely (or ever?) engaged in LGBT advocacy)?

    For this reason, most California employers know not to make any inquiry whatsoever into the political activity (including endorsements, contributions and participation in public events) of their employees, or if they happen to know about it, they know they risk liability if they appear to act on the information in any way adverse to the employee. [An interesting historical footnote: this provision was originally enacted to permit labor organizing, and was held to protect employees from termination on the basis of their sexual orientation, in a 1979 case called Gay Law Students vs. PT&T, before sexual orientation was specifically added to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act in 2000.]

  7. Ted

    I am a gay Californian and Prop 8 was a big slap in the face to our community. That being said, a single donation to the prop 8 group could be understood if the person was religious. The Catholic and Mormon churches pushed their communities to fight for this proposition. There was especially heavy influence from Utah.

    I would be willing to give Eich a pass if this was his only anti-gay action. Did he also donate heavily to all the groups surrounding Prop 8? Is there a sign that preventing equal rights to LGBTQ is a core part of his beliefs? Does he act anti-gay in his personal life?

    Reading between the lines of some communications from Mozilla folks would make you think he is anti-gay, but believes in Mozilla’s inclusive policies. I think that is the core issue that people are struggling with.

    • Greg Basham

      My sense of an executive role in an organization like Mozilla would be that the board should select a person with no political baggage as CEO. The long list of support by Brendan Eich for politicians with some extreme views on this issue – if not known by the board appointing him meet the standard for me of – ought to have been known – which for me means they got the initial appointment wrong; or they strongly believed that this would not an issue based on his internal track record. That might be naiveté given the proof that more diverse and inclusive means you better reflect the very audiences and customers you are seeking.

      Two of the characterizations make distinctions that ignore the power of managers in organizations as they hire, fire, reward, recognize, promote, etc just like the executives do at their level
      We know from our employee engagement surveys and exit interviews we do for firms that 85-90% of the discontent in groups and reasons for exits are due to the direct influence of their manager.

      To be effective as an executive two things are always in play – power and relationships. Power is limited so you best develop powerful relationships both with peers and down into your organization.

      I don’t see a need to avoid camaraderie any differently than if you are a manager at any level of the organization. The effective managers like executives understand the risks associated with socializing and being too friendly with your employees. If you go to work for your friendships and validation that you get from friends you will fail and won’t rise to the executive levels.

      As an executive for many years the word “privilege” only came into play for me when it comes to the privilege it was to be able to work with and guide talented people. Not the perks of office. It has to be about them – or it won’t work.

      Effective executives take an interest in not only their direct reports but those that they report to them – at least two levels down. To develop my direct reports I’d have them present to the executives themselves on their work rather than just me. I’d also have their direct reports at times bring their recommendations to our meetings so they’d develop their skills as well as learn what we are looking for.

  8. Cee

    Lauren, this is the articulate perspective I’ve been looking for – this is different, and it is about rights.

    The guy is apparently brilliant, and I respect his technical ability. That doesn’t make him the best leader of people.

    He is free to have his beliefs, and the community is free to demand leadership that reflects their values.

  9. Luigi

    My problem is with the Mozilla board members who appointed Eich.

    To believe that the board members are not anti-LGBTI, you would have to believe that if Eich had donated $1,000 to the American Nazi Party or the KKK, they would have still appointed him.

    No one believes that the Mozilla board would have appointed Eich CEO had he donated to the American Nazi Party or the KKK, so the only explanation is that the Mozilla board thinks that LGBTI rights are of lesser importance than the rights of other people, or they actually agree with Eich that LGBTI people should not have equal rights.

    In either case, I’m done with Mozilla until those who appointed Eich CEO are gone because they are the real villains in this story

  10. JP

    Great write up, and perfectly sums up my feelings.

  11. Ken

    So reading your article you support Hobby Lobby. Personal preferences in business. I agree.

  12. tech Indra

    Prop. 8 does not block those rights, there are other ways to achieve those rights without calling the relationships marriage.

  13. Andrew

    Eich’s $1000 went to an ultimately unconstitutional effort that lost.

    Donating and supporting a coal lobby feeds them forever with continual influence over our politicians.

    The second has a much greater impact in the long term.

  14. anonymouse

    and this is why when asked to lead the 3 NPO’s I have so far, when asked about my personal beliefs I answer with ‘decline to state’.

    It’s sad to see that the earth has fallen into a mob rule mentality where nothing is sacred, even things explicitly stated as “personal”. It’s even sadder that people apparently truly believe that it’s not a virtue being able to cut your feelings off from your professional demeanor, but I guess if people like you are going to continue working in the sector then people like me will have to get used to hiding our personal information without LOOKING like we are.

    welcome to the social police state I guess…

  15. Liberty or Death to her enemies

    He has an unqualified right to political expression. There was nothing in his employment contract that says he must waive that right, nor could there legally be. Suppose for a moment that he supported a Jewish political candidate, and members of the public mounted a campaign to have him removed for the usual racist reasons. Would he or should he be forced to step down? You imply that if he’d supported the NRA it would be different; no it wouldn’t. It’s a matter of whether he has a right or not. If the standard for punishment is not based on WHETHER he suported a poltical cause, but WHICH cause, it is political persecution, plain and simple. If a person supports a man losing his job because he supported a political position they do not like, that person is a real-deal Fascist.



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