Why Sam Altman Was (Briefly) Fired From OpenAI

For five days last November, Sam Altman was a king without a kingdom.

The man who co-founded OpenAI, the $80 billion juggernaut behind the wildly popular AI chatbot ChatGPT, had been suddenly ousted from his position as CEO by OpenAI’s corporate board in a surprise move widely considered within Silicon Valley to be a “coup.”

The coup, however, didn’t last long. Now nearly nine months after Altman briefly lost his job, the enigmatic and visionary tech leader is among the most powerful people in an industry reshaping the world. But for a few days, he was adrift and, by his own account, in an “insane” state of mind.

Sam Altman
OpenAI former CEO Sam Altman looks on during the APEC CEO Summit at Moscone West on November 16, 2023 in San Francisco, California, one day before he was briefly ousted by the company’s board.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

OpenAI’s board announced they had lost confidence in Altman’s leadership on Nov. 17, 2023, and would replace him at the helm.

“Mr. Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities,” according to a blog post announcing his ouster.

“The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”

In May, former OpenAI board member Helen Toner revealed what was happening behind the scenes, in an interview on The TED AI Show. In Toner’s telling, the board had decided they needed to bring on a new CEO — and the only way to do it was to go behind Altman’s back.

“It 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,” Toner said.

According to Toner, the board had stopped trusting Altman because of, what they called, his lack of open communication about owning a venture fund under the OpenAI umbrella. Altman also allegedly provided inaccurate information about the company’s safety processes “on multiple occasions.”

Toner said she felt personally attacked as well.

“Sam started lying to other board members in order to try and push me off the board,” she said in the interview.

Toner also accused Altman of “psychological abuse” and creating a “toxic atmosphere.” She said two executives had told the board Altman was not “the right person to lead the company to AGI [artificial general intelligence].”

Helen Toner
Helen Toner, Director of Strategy and Foundational Research Grants at Georgetown’s CSET speaks onstage during Vox Media’s 2023 Code Conference at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel on September 27, 2023 in Dana Point, California.

Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Vox Media

She claimed that the board was not even given a heads up when ChatGPT launched publicly a year prior, adding to the narrative that Altman was keeping them in the dark.

Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, was appointed interim CEO while the board began a search for Altman’s permanent successor.

In a brief post on social media, Altman called his time at OpenAI “transformative.”

While the board may have hoped that would be the end of the story, it wasn’t. Altman’s support, both within OpenAI and in the wider Valley, was deep.

Greg Isenberg, CEO of product design agency Late Checkout, wrote on X that Altman had “skyrocketed” OpenAI’s value “from zero to $80B, and still, he’s out.”

“This is exactly why I steer clear of venture capital. One moment you’re in, the next you’re out,” Isenberg wrote. “You work for the board of directors, not for yourself.”

Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, called Altman a “hero of mine” that “changed our collective world forever.”

In his retelling, Altman said that he received 10 to 20 texts from world leaders within a day of his ousting.

Greg Brockman, the president of OpenAI who helped cofound the firm with Altman, quit in solidarity. Hours after the board announced Altman was out, both he and Brockman had been hired to oversee a new AI research lab at Microsoft, OpenAI’s biggest investor.

Meanwhile, Murati, the interim CEO appointed to replace Altman, was herself replaced — this time with Emmett Shear, who previously ran the streaming service Twitch. But by this time, OpenAI was in a full-fledged crisis of its own making.

When the Microsoft announcement was made, more than 700 OpenAI employees — nearly its entire payroll — signed a letter threatening to quit and join the new Microsoft venture unless the board resigned en masse. An intense pressure campaign to bring Altman back was underway.

On the tech podcast The Logan Bartlett Show, Altman described the period as an “insane, superjammed” few days when his body was in an “adrenaline-charged state.”

“It was just, like, weird, like not sleeping much, not really eating, energy levels, like, very high, very clear, very focused.”

John Hope Bryant, the CEO of Operation Hope and the co-founder of the new AI Ethics Council, told Newsweek that he texted Altman asking if he was OK and to send his support.

“At some point, he said you know, I still want to do what we talked about” Hope Bryant recalled to Newsweek. He said he had discussed with Altman the promise of AI in reaching underserved communities.

Meanwhile, Ilya Sutskever, an OpenAI co-founder and board member, broke with the rest of the board. He was among the hundreds of OpenAI employees who signed the letter demanding Altman be reinstated.

Then late in the night on Nov. 20, OpenAI announced it “reached an agreement in principle” for Altman’s return.

The coup, such that it was, had failed, and by March, several new members — in addition to Altman — were added to the board: Sue Desmond-Hellmann, former CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Nicole Seligman, former Sony Entertainment president, and Instacart CEO Fidji Simo. Microsoft was also given its own observer seat, appointing executive Dee Templeton to the post.

Recalling the crazed five days in November, Atman said that after he agreed to return as CEO, he stopped at a diner on his way to Napa for the Thanksgiving holiday and realized he hadn’t eaten in days.

He ordered a “very satisfying” meal of four “heavy” entrees as well as “two milkshakes just for me.”