intel_divorce_iI just read the article from the UK Times titled Why Microsoft and Intel tried to kill the XO $100 laptop, an over-sensationalized, biased and factually incorrect article, as well as a well-written rebuttal by Mike Masnick at Techdirt titled Will Nicholas Negroponte Ever Understand That Competition Isn’t About Killing OLPC?

And why is this my first ever blog post for Disruptive Leadership? Because if I had to create a HBS case study on all the challenges and pitfalls that epitomize why disruptive leadership is needed when growing new technology solutions in emerging markets, the ongoing saga of Nicholas Negroponte, Intel and Microsoft is a perfect story for it.

I may be one of the few that can credibly talk to this topic, at least the Intel side of it. I was the co-general manager of the Intel group that created the Classmate PC from 2005 to 2006. So from at least the Intel perspective, I can speak to what many people are guessing about. And since I don’t work there anymore, I can say things that Intel spokespeople cannot.

I have made this a three-part series as there is much to discuss about this “fight.”  Fight may not be the right word, but I think it highlights what I think is a key component that is fueling the debate.  That component is Ego.

Why do people get in a “fight?”  (I’m not talking about a healthy or constructive debate or argument.  I’m talking about an “I’m right and you’re wrong” altercation.)   Pride, inflated ego, and maybe a bit of arrogance thrown in for good measure.  It inflicts individuals and institutions.

Anybody who rises through the ranks of a company and gets fancy titles or celebrity-like treatment with the press, government or industry pundits cannot help having their ego inflate. I saw it happen to me as I rose through the ranks at Intel. I think you can be the most self-confident, nice guy on the planet and still not be able to prevent your ego from inflating as you get to the top of your field. I was lucky … I decided to make a few career moves that had me move sideways and sometimes down to increase the breadth of my experience.  In the process, my titles and responsibilities changed, the budgets and number of people I managed rose, shrunk, rose shrunk. As I went through these career transitions and frequent “self-introspections,” I believe I gained some humility in the process. I became aware of how power and rank can impact one’s ego and can often get in the way of rational business decisions.

The problem I see is that a big ego creates emotional, irrational behavior and defensiveness and can lead to bad decisions and business performance.

I have never met Mr. Negroponte, but I know many that have. I’ve seen him speak. And I guarantee you he has a big ego. I mean no disrespect to him personally; I think he’s brilliant. I thoroughly enjoyed his book Being Digital. I believe he has created a renewed focus on helping the world’s poor. And he has helped create a new product category, the mini-notebook. But his reactions, statements and decisions all feel ego-driven to me.  But everything I’ve seen and heard about him and OLPC screams “ego.”

Intel (as a company) and many of its leaders also have big egos. Being the market leader with >70% market share for 20 or more years will do that to a company. As a result, I sometimes sensed a sense of “entitlement” permeating the executive ranks, and its executives sometimes make statements that weren’t well thought out. Intel had an “award” for its executives called “The Golden Muzzle,” which was given to the exec that makes the biggest PR gaffe.

When I was running the business group that was developing the Classmate PC, I was also in charge of getting the message out about the product. I actually wanted to reach out to OLPC and see how we could partner with them and win them over to our architecture. That’s always been my philosophy … look at “co-opetition” opportunities with your competitors. But then Craig Barrett, Intel’s chairman, called Nick’s laptop a “gadget,” which became a PR nightmare, spinning us into damage control. My email to the PR director was something like “OLPC is a philanthropic, nonprofit project … a big MNC like Intel can’t bash them in the press!”

Various senior execs reached out to Negroponte to apologize and clear the air, but Negroponte was ticked and it took months of smoothing over before the two parties allied, and then famously split again, acrimoniously. I think ego was one of the factors that forced them apart. The whole thing became almost a caricature, as you can see in the image from Gizmodo’s May 2007 post, Negroponte to Intel: You Suck!

Bottom line is this: I think many projects would be more successful if the leaders put business relationships first and learned to check their egos at the door. We used to have this concept called “constructive confrontation” at Intel. It was about healthy debates about the business issue, avoiding personal attacks. I think business leaders, no matter how famous or powerful, need to do the same. A little humility goes a long way.

This post is Part 1 of a three-part series exploring the ongoing “battle” between Nicholas Negroponte’s OLPC laptop project and Intel’s Classmate PC.  Part 2 focuses on Negroponte’s decision to make his company a nonprofit. Part 3 will discuss the role customer engagement has in “fueling the fire.”