The Mozilla method for godzilla leaders

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am

Many who grew up in the 1950s would have heard of Godzilla - the half-gorilla, half-whale monster created by the Japanese film company Toho in 1954, and the star of many comic books, Japanese films and even an American remake.

To many younger people unaware of Godzilla, Mozilla - the creator of the now widely popular Web browser Firefox - would strike a much more sympathetic chord. A visitor to Mozilla Foundation's headquarters in Mountain View, California, is greeted by the giant, red Godzilla-shaped mascot at its entrance. But the word 'Mozilla', meaning 'Mosaic killer', has its roots not in Godzilla but in the application software created by the now defunct Netscape Communications Company - founded as Mosaic Communications Company in 1994.

As Netscape's Web browser, Navigator, and related software took off, the company's fortunes had a roller-coaster ride throughout the 1990s. It had a 90 per cent market share of the Web browser market and its stock skyrocketed after the company's public listing, until Microsoft's policy of bundling the sale of its Web browser, Internet Explorer, with its Windows operating system, beat Netscape to the ground. Following Netscape's acquisition by media and communications giant AOL in 1998, Netscape gave its browser suite source code to the Mozilla project in 1998, so that impassioned programmers determined to revive the vanquished browser could give Navigator a new lease of life. Today, not only has Mozilla Firefox succeeded in growing at the expense of Internet Explorer, it has also managed to keep Safari, the Web browser created by red-hot tech giant Apple, at bay.

The Mozilla insurgency holds many interesting lessons for students of organisational excellence. It is more than a David-versus-Goliath story. Puny Mozilla not only managed to get the better of software giant Microsoft in the browser war, but it did so as a mission-driven, public-benefit organisation. Its standard-bearers are volunteers convinced of the power of the internet and the value of free, innovative, open-source software. The Mozilla Foundation employs only 250 paid full-time staff, but has tens of thousands of volunteer programmers working around the clock and around the world, including some in Hong Kong, who labour incessantly to improve and develop the requisite software. The Mozilla Foundation proclaims itself a meritocracy, with authority distributed among many volunteers working and reporting to the highest leader in concentric circles. But once the leader makes a decision, it is adopted as gospel truth throughout Mozilla land.

There is much that a modern government can learn from the Mozilla organisation. The modern leader is not only the highest authority atop a pyramidal hierarchy. He or she also lies at the centre of ever widening concentric circles, and has a duty to make his or her influence felt as widely as possible. The leader must make tough decisions based on the merits of a case, and connect with those far from the centre of power.

Governments can also learn from Mozilla the importance of harnessing the passion of volunteers propelled by the quest for excellence. The 'mission-driven' nature of Mozilla's armies of volunteers stands in stark contrast to relentlessly rent-seeking Wall Street vultures or intransigent, unionised workers who would strike at the slightest suggestion of a pay cut. Seeking no other satisfaction than that of having contributed to the continuous improvement of software and expanding the power of the World Wide Web, the Mozilla Foundation provides a perfect example of entrepreneurial success - providing its key staff a good living and its volunteers the outsized satisfaction of serving a good cause. Who would complain if a leader could build and sustain an organisation, whether for profit or otherwise, with the same degree of commitment and sense of mission?

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chairwoman of the Savantas Policy Institute