One of the biggest tech news stories of the past week has been the sudden resignation of Mozilla’s new chief executive, Brendan Eich.
He took the role on March 24 after a boardroom shake-up that saw former chief Jay Sullivan resign, after previously serving as the its chief technical officer.
Meanwhile, back in 2008, Eich donated $1000 to a campaign urging people to vote in favour of Proposition 8, a law banning same-sex marriage in California. While the law eventually passed by a popular ballot, it was overturned by the US Supreme Court in 2013.
Once Eich’s donation became public knowledge, he was attacked on social media and blogs by same-sex marriage campaigners and even some of his own staff. Late last week, he resigned from Mozilla.
This prompted widespread speculation that the board had pushed him to quit. Mozilla issued a statement clarifying that he had resigned of his own accord, and after he made his decision, the board attempted to persuade him to at least stay on in a different capacity.
A bad time for Mozilla
As I’ve previously discussed in Control Shift, the leadership disruption is the last thing Mozilla needs right now. Currently, its main source of revenue is from Google searches originating from its Firefox search engine, with that agreement expiring in November of this year.
While negotiating with Google, it’s hoping devices powered by its Firefox OS operating system gain traction in the marketplace. These include Chromebook-style netbooks, low-end smartphones in emerging markets, tablets, smart TVs being built in conjunction with Panasonic and the Firefox Marketplace app store.
Many of these products compete head-to-head with Google – currently also its main source of revenue.
Much like the Australian Labor Party, Mozilla somehow managed to choose perhaps the worst possible moment to shoot itself in the foot with a bout of leadership instability.
Company leadership and social media
Obviously, much of the commentary has focused on whether it was ethical of same-sex marriage campaigners to target Eich because of his political views.
It’s a debate I’ve covered in greater depth in this week’s Best of the Web.
Whatever your opinion is on that issue, the Eich incident has also revealed an important lesson for other business leaders.
The new reality, in the age of social media, is that chief executives and the companies they lead face greater public scrutiny than in the past.
Chief executives and founders are often seen by the general public as being the personification of a business and the values it represents. Often, she or he can also be the most potent spokesperson for a company or brand – just look at Janine Ellis, Richard Branson or Steve Jobs.
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, businesses have been identified with their leaders. It was as true for Henry Ford as it is today.
Many business owners, chief executives and founders put this power to good use by becoming the human face of their business.
But there’s also a catch. Just like celebrities, politicians, athletes, entertainers and other public figures, businesspeople are held under greater scrutiny as a result of social media. Sometimes this criticism is justified, while at other times it’s just outright trolling.
Likewise, the private positions taken by company executives on social issues or comments made on social media will increasingly be identified back to the companies they lead. It’s a new, additional challenge leaders face in the social media age.
Eich probably won’t be the last
Eich is not the first executive to be attacked on social media, and he almost certainly won’t be the last. If anything, such criticism is likely to become even more prevalent in the future.
It’s something all business leaders need to be mindful of.