When Authentic Leadership Is Too Revealing: Brendan Eich's Lessons

The Mozilla controversy train has finally stopped. After a tortured week of equivocal statements on welcoming all opinions, simultaneously affirming support for LGBT people while propping up a CEO who had given personal funds to beat marriage equality, Brendan Eich has resigned as CEO of Mozilla.

I and the organization I represent, the Human Rights Campaign, did not weigh in publicly during this week. Mozilla employees reached out to us following the start of the controversy to begin engagement on the HRC's Corporate Equality Index, the national LGBT corporate ranking survey we administer every year.

Seizing a clear silver lining -- a willingness to take the CEI -- we commend their team for recognizing this goal as being worthwhile.

I think similarly situated businesses can learn a few things.

First off, Mozilla's strongest statements clarifying its corporate views and some LGBT-inclusive policies came in reaction to the Eich controversy. Mozilla had not established a high level of commitment to making their LGBT inclusion public knowledge as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and hundreds of others have done for years through active participation in the Corporate Equality Index.

True or not, the company appeared to be defensive and without a solid foundation of equality already well-established. The company-issued statements glossed over their CEO's public donation and commitment to restricting the marriage rights of a major segment of his own workforce and greater consumers Mozilla serves.

On March 29, the company issued a blog post supporting LGBT equality characterizing this as an issue of differing opinions all welcome under the same roof and noting,"[o]ne voice will not limit opportunity for anyone."

True, if all voices are relatively equal, but this is the CEO.

Furthermore, why have such a prominent leader if his or her voice even suggests a limiting of opportunity?

In an age of corporate beliefs in "authentic leadership," the fact that Mr. Eich took time out of his day and money out of his checkbook to defeat marriage equality in California most certainly is an insight into his authentic self. In other words, this is not an opinion that surfaced through nuanced and long conversations. It was decisive action aimed at restricting the rights of a minority group.

Nationally the question of basic rights for LGBT people is not a "to-may-to/to-mah-to" breezy difference of opinions.

Amongst the general public, marriage equality is less and less an abstract idea but instead has the very human faces of LGBT family members, friends and colleagues. To label it a simple matter of differing views is just too minimizing.

Without the prodding of LGBT interest groups, Mr. Eich's Board peers resigned and others expressed their lack of confidence in his ability to lead.

Marriage equality and LGBT equality under the law have the support of the majority of Mozilla's tech peers, along with hundreds of major businesses that have publicly weighed in at the state level, before the Supreme Court last year and via public coalitions to support legislation. The issue is one of smart business to many prominent corporate leaders, in addition to being the right thing to do.

The dotted lines just couldn't connect -- at once the company reactively affirmed some broad principles of equality, minimized the role of the CEO and failed to specifically and concretely convince its stakeholders of the rationale for tolerating Eich's commitment to anti-equality measures.

In short, market forces -- not just a vocal pro-equality group -- took over.

Clearly, the company made a business decision that the reality of its CEO's anti-LGBT actions was inconsistent with its continued financial well-being. Consumers have a lot of choices these days and why shouldn't a CEO's giving influence consumers' perceptions of a company?

We are glad the story ends with a significant chance for change. The Human Rights Campaign welcomes the opportunity to turn a corner and work with Mozilla on the tenets of equality just as we have for hundreds of other major businesses.