Former OpenAI Board Member Reveals: Why Sam Altman Was Fired and Reinstated

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Discover the reasons behind the shocking firing of OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman from the perspective of former board member Helen Toner. Learn about the internal conflicts, transparency issues, and leadership dynamics that led to his ousting and eventual reinstatement.

On November 17th, 2023, OpenAI’s board shocked the tech world by abruptly ousting co-founder and CEO Sam Altman. This decision was particularly surprising given Altman’s role in overseeing the rapid growth and success of ChatGPT, one of the most significant AI advancements in recent history. Former board member Helen Toner recently shed light on the reasons behind this drastic move during an interview on The TED AI Show podcast.

Why Sam Altman Was Fired and Reinstated
Why Sam Altman Was Fired and Reinstated

The Background of the Decision

Helen Toner detailed the board’s growing mistrust towards Altman, citing several reasons that contributed to their decision. According to Toner, the board had no choice but to act secretly to avoid immediate retaliation from Altman. She explained, “[I]t was very clear to all of us that as soon as Sam had any inkling that we might do something that went against him, he would pull out all the stops, do everything in his power to undermine the board, to prevent us from even getting to the point of being able to fire him.”

Issues of Transparency and Trust

One of the critical issues was Altman’s lack of transparency. Toner mentioned that Altman failed to inform the board about his ownership of the OpenAI Startup Fund, which created a significant conflict of interest. Additionally, Altman allegedly provided inaccurate information about the company’s safety processes on multiple occasions. These inaccuracies raised serious concerns about his reliability and honesty.

Personal Targeting and Psychological Abuse

Toner also shared a personal anecdote, revealing that Altman targeted her after she published a research paper that displeased him. “Sam started lying to other board members in order to try and push me off the board,” she stated. This behavior was not isolated, as other executives came forward to describe a toxic work environment under Altman’s leadership. They accused him of psychological abuse and provided evidence of manipulative behaviors, which ultimately convinced the board to take action.

Lack of Oversight

The board’s lack of oversight was exemplified by the launch of ChatGPT. Toner pointed out that the board was not informed about the launch in advance and only learned about it through social media. This incident highlighted a significant disconnect between the board and the company’s operations, further eroding their trust in Altman’s leadership.

The Aftermath and Altman’s Return

The podcast did not delve deeply into the chaotic days following Altman’s dismissal. OpenAI quickly cycled through interim CEOs while employees, including at least one board member who initially supported Altman’s firing, began advocating for his return. Microsoft’s backing of Altman added significant pressure on the board to reinstate him.

Reasons for Altman’s Strong Support

Toner identified three primary reasons why the push to bring Altman back was so intense. Firstly, employees were presented with a binary choice: either restore Altman or face the potential destruction of the company. Naturally, fearing the company’s collapse, they opted for the former. Secondly, many were afraid to oppose Altman, having witnessed his retaliatory actions against others. Lastly, Toner pointed to Altman’s prior track record, suggesting that his problematic behavior was not new.

Altman’s Track Record

Toner highlighted Altman’s previous issues in Silicon Valley, referencing his firing from Y Combinator and his earlier startup, Loopt. According to her, the management team at Loopt had twice approached the board, requesting Altman’s dismissal due to “deceptive and chaotic behavior.” These historical instances painted a pattern of problematic leadership that extended beyond OpenAI.

Board’s Perspective on the Controversy

The podcast also featured a response from current OpenAI board chair Bret Taylor, who expressed disappointment over Toner’s continued focus on these issues. Taylor clarified that an independent review, conducted by the law firm WilmerHale, concluded that the board’s decision to fire Altman was not based on concerns regarding product safety, security, development pace, finances, or communications with stakeholders. The review found that over 95 percent of OpenAI employees, including senior leadership, supported Altman’s reinstatement and the resignation of the prior board.

Moving Forward

Despite the controversy, the focus for OpenAI now is to move forward and continue pursuing its mission to ensure that Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) benefits all of humanity. The organization aims to learn from these events and work towards a more transparent and cohesive operational strategy.


The abrupt firing and subsequent reinstatement of Sam Altman at OpenAI reveal a complex interplay of trust, transparency, and leadership dynamics. While the specific details of what led to his ouster and return remain partially obscured, the insights provided by Helen Toner offer a glimpse into the challenges faced by the board. Moving forward, it is crucial for OpenAI to address these internal issues to maintain its position as a leader in the AI industry and to ensure the responsible development and deployment of its technologies.

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