Sam Altman is making a notable return to the helm of OpenAI, steering the ship through a recent storm of internal strife. Greg Brockman, who had previously stepped down in protest when Altman was initially ousted, is also making a comeback.
In a recent announcement, OpenAI revealed a tentative agreement for Altman’s reinstatement, accompanied by a fresh lineup on the board. The new faces include Bret Taylor, Larry Summers, and Adam D’Angelo. Notably, D’Angelo, a familiar figure from the previous board that played a role in Altman’s initial dismissal, has been retained to maintain some continuity.
The immediate task assigned to this reconstituted, compact board is to carefully evaluate and select a larger board, potentially consisting of up to 9 members. This strategic move aims to overhaul OpenAI’s governance structure. Microsoft, a pivotal investor pledging significant financial support, is eager to secure a seat on the expanded board. Simultaneously, Altman himself is positioned to play a key role in shaping the organization’s future.
This development takes place against the backdrop of Microsoft’s commitment to inject substantial funds into OpenAI, reflecting a deepening collaboration. During a recent press tour, Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, emphasized a desire for a more predictable and stable governance framework, articulating a need to avoid any unexpected “surprises” in the future. This signals a concerted effort to ensure transparency, stability, and strategic alignment as OpenAI charts its course forward.
Both parties have reportedly agreed to launch an investigation into the entire saga, indicating a willingness to bring in an outside, independent law firm to look into the matter. Conversations with those involved suggest that the very human power struggle at the heart of this situation may not have entirely concluded.
Despite the ongoing dynamics, all major players have publicly shared details about the agreement for Altman’s return. According to information received, the deal is essentially sealed, pending some final paperwork. On a platform referred to as “X,” Altman expressed that his recent actions were driven by a commitment to maintaining the unity of the team and preserving its mission. This statement underscores the human element and the dedication to the overarching goals that have been pivotal in navigating through the recent organizational turbulence.
One of OpenAI’s other big investors, Thrive Capital, called the return of Altman
“the best outcome for the company, its employees, those who build on their technologies, and the world at large.”
“OpenAI has the potential to be one of the most consequential companies in the history of computing,” Thrive partner Kelly Sims said in a statement shared with The Verge. “Sam and Greg possess a profound commitment to the company’s integrity, and an unmatched ability to inspire and lead. We couldn’t be more excited for them to come back to the company they founded and helped build into what it is today.”
Altman’s unexpected return is even more surprising given the abruptness of his departure last Friday. Initially, OpenAI’s nonprofit board appeared steadfast in its resolve to oust Altman, going so far as to appoint two CEOs within a span of three days to avoid reinstating him. Simultaneously, a groundswell of discontent emerged among OpenAI employees, who openly rebelled and, in a bold move, threatened to defect to Microsoft along with Altman and co-founder Greg Brockman if the board did not resign.
The rapid succession of events reflects a complex and dynamic power struggle within OpenAI, with the board’s decisions seemingly at odds with the sentiments and unity of the workforce. The employees’ strong stance, coupled with the potential mass departure to Microsoft, created a significant ripple effect, putting immense pressure on the board and ultimately paving the way for Altman’s surprising return. This episode highlights the delicate balance between leadership decisions, employee loyalty, and the broader implications for the organization’s stability and mission.
Since Altman’s abrupt firing on Friday, the board members who opposed him have held back the detailed reasons behind his dismissal, even in the face of potential legal action from investors and the looming threat of employee walkouts. The situation took a dramatic turn on Sunday when a pivotal board member, Ilya Sutskever, switched sides and aligned with Altman after being persuaded by Brockman’s wife. The personal connection runs deep, with Sutskever having officiated Brockman’s wedding at OpenAI headquarters.
This shift in allegiance by Sutskever, who also serves as OpenAI’s chief scientist, weakened the position of the remaining three board members. Notably, interim CEO Emmett Shear, appointed on Sunday to replace the previous interim CEO, Mira Murati, reportedly reached a point where he threatened to resign unless the board furnished documentation or evidence justifying Altman’s termination. Following the announcement of Altman’s return on Tuesday night, Shear characterized it as “the pathway that maximized safety alongside doing right by all stakeholders involved,” expressing satisfaction in contributing to the resolution. This reveals the intense internal dynamics and the behind-the-scenes negotiations that ultimately shaped the surprising outcome.