Mozilla’s new CEO: Free speech in the executive suite?


Angel Navarrete/BLOOMBERG

How much do a CEO's past political views matter once he's elevated to the top job?

A lot, apparently. Brendan Eich, the creator of JavaScript and one of the co-founders of Mozilla, which builds the web browser Firefox, was named Mozilla's CEO on March 24. In the days since, some employees, users and even other Internet companies have been up in arms over a $1,000 2008 donation Eich gave in support of Proposition 8, a California ballot proposition aimed at banning gay marriage.

A petition, currently with more than 70,000 signatures, is being circulated encouraging Eich to support gay marriage or step down. Staffers have been openly speaking out both for and against Eich in online blog posts and on Twitter. And on Monday, the online dating site OKCupid told its Firefox users that it preferred they did not use Mozilla software.

In response to the controversy, the company issued an initial statement on its commitment to diversity, citing its generously inclusive health benefits. Mozilla co-founder and executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker wrote a blog post addressing the issue and outlining her personal support for equal rights. After Eich penned his own blog post (in which he reiterated his commitment to equality and the LGBT community, and expressed "my sorrow at having caused pain"), the company issued another statement over the weekend explicitly clarifying its support for LGBT equality, and a Mozilla spokesman also responded to my request for comment with this: "Mozilla supports equality for all, including marriage equality for LGBT couples. No matter who you are or who you love, everyone deserves the same rights and to be treated equally. OkCupid never reached out to us to let us know of their intentions, nor to confirm facts."

Eich's past political actions are magnified to some extent because of the organization he now leads. Mozilla is not your average business — an open source Web organization, Mozilla is often described as a community, or a project. "Mozilla considers itself a hybrid organization," its Web site states, "combining non-profit and market strategies to ensure the Internet remains a shared public resource."

Unlike other companies that tout their commitment to diversity, Mozilla trumpets its adherence to the values of inclusiveness and openness throughout its mission and creed. The organization says it "emphasize[s] principle over profit" and has a diversity and inclusion policy that "welcomes and encourages participation by everyone." As a result, it shouldn't come as much surprise that Mozilla staffers and users find it harder to draw a line between Eich's past actions or personal beliefs and the mission of the company he leads.

But even if Mozilla is unique in that regard, the brouhaha isn't. It raises a broader set of questions we're only going to hear more often in a world with greater scrutiny of business leaders, fewer sharp lines between our personal and professional lives, and a rapidly shifting acceptance of same-sex marriage by the public and by corporations. Questions like: Should a CEO's individual beliefs and political actions keep him from doing a job for which he is professionally well qualified? Must a CEO's known personal views adhere to a different standard after he becomes the public face of an organization? What happens when the public is forced to wrestle with supporting the right of free speech alongside supporting equal rights?

And perhaps most important: How much can a CEO's personal views actually damage his ability to do the job? The issue could fall away if Eich addresses it further, goes on to credibly "show, not tell" his commitment to equality, and receives enough support from high-profile LGBT members within the Mozilla community. Or, it could become divisive enough and painful enough for its members that it actually gets in the way of his ability to lead.

Read also:

Corporate America's gay rights evolution

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's grande support of gay marriage

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · March 31