Sam Altman’s astonishingly swift return as CEO of AI phenom OpenAI is reminiscent of Steve Jobs’ heralded second coming at Apple and Jack Dorsey’s founder encore at Twitter. While both Jobs and Dorsey measured their exile from the top job in years, Altman reclaimed his throne in just four days.
On November 19th, 2023, OpenAI’s board abruptly ousted Altman from the CEO seat. But once employees and investors caught wind of the move, opposition quickly rallied.
Altman had shepherded OpenAI from its nonprofit origins to the cusp of a reported $86 billion valuation on the back of revolutionary chatbot ChatGPT. However, in less than 72 hours, OpenAI had announced Altman’s reinstatement along with a major board shakeup to smooth his transition back into power. Altman had been due to lead a new advanced AI team at Microsoft.
For a couple of days, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, looked as if he were making an open and comprehensive offer to OpenAI staff to jump ship.
Altman’s lightning-fast return mirrors Steve Jobs’ own storied round trip to Apple. After starting Apple in 1976, power struggles with CEO John Sculley led the board to remove Jobs in 1985. In the following years, Apple drifted without Jobs’ product vision and mastery of simplicity in design.
As sales lagged and stock dropped 30% in 1997, Apple purchased Jobs’ software company NeXT to bring him back as interim CEO to right the ship. Jobs went on to lead Apple’s renaissance, ushering in era-defining products.
In April 2003, Apple revolutionized the music industry with the launch of the iTunes Store. Fast forward to January 2007, and Jobs took center stage at Macworld San Francisco, unveiling the first iPhone. Come June, the groundbreaking device hit the market, reshaping the smartphone landscape.
In July 2008, Apple expanded its influence with the introduction of the App Store , creating a thriving ecosystem for third-party applications. Despite health challenges, Jobs returned in June 2009, undergoing a liver transplant and making a reassuring public appearance in September. Over the next years, Apple continued its innovation streak, introducing the iPad in April 2010, the iPhone 4 in June, and the MacBook Air in October.
However, in January 2011, Jobs took another medical leave, ultimately resigning as CEO in August and recommending Tim Cook as his successor. The tech visionary passed away in October 2011 at the age of 56.
Then, in 2018, Apple officially hit the $1 trillion mark, making it the first American company to do so. A milestone many attribute to Jobs’ return.
We glimpsed a similar founder revival at Twitter when Jack Dorsey scrummed his way back into the CEO role in 2015. Dorsey co-founded Twitter in 2006 and held the CEO title for over a year before investor unrest pushed him out in 2008.
While Twitter grew to over 300 million users without Dorsey, innovation stagnated. Flagging stock value and product troubles beckoned Dorsey’s return after years of behind-the-scenes maneuvering for a second shot as CEO. However, Dorsey resigned in 2021, leaving the door open for Elon Musk‘s eventual takeover and rebrand.
Despite Dorsey’s return in 2015, Twitter struggled with user growth and faced continued concerns about long-term viability. The platform also received intense criticism for inadequate measures against harassment. Upon becoming President, Donald Trump’s controversial tweets fueled debates until his account suspension in 2021 after the Capitol riot.
In 2018, Twitter proactively purged bot and fake accounts to combat misinformation. Dorsey wasn’t free from embarrassment either, with his own account hack in August 2019 raising security questions. Then, In July 2020, a Bitcoin scam compromised high-profile accounts, confounding the security concerns.
The tech industry is unusually focused on cults of personality. All three founders seemed to have a sixth sense for where technology was headed and what people wanted.
In all three cases, investors and staff struggled initially with their initial presence, before reaching out to reverse their mistake.
But while Jobs had a thirteen year gap between stints as Apple’s leader, and Dorsey seven years away from Twitter’s helm, Altman’s return sets a new standard for exiled founders reclaiming their seat in a matter of days. Time will tell if it’s the correct move.