Horror Show, or The Glass Cliff

Halloween is here and I am ready. Pumpkin purchased and ready for carving? Check. Candy bowl filled and sitting by the front door for trick-or-treaters? Check. Porch lights on extended timer in case a pack of 16 year olds shows up at 9:30pm looking for treats? Check.

One ritual I love this time of year is watching classic horror movies. These films typically follow a well-worn plotline: crazed killer torments young people in a picturesque community until a smart, capable female, untouched by scandal, defeats the seemingly unstoppable monster.

Makes me think of another example of smart, capable females called to confront a crisis; women leaders standing on the Glass Cliff.

I first wrote about this phenomenon in May 2014. The “Glass Cliff” was coined by University of Essex researchers Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam in 2004 to describe women’s ascent to senior-most positions during periods of great crisis. Women get the top spot more frequently when things are really bad than they do when conditions are positive. It seems that women who shatter the glass ceiling do so with greater predictability when there is a mess to clean up.

Take Mary Barra, who was named the first female CEO of General Motors in January 2014, right after the company became engulfed in a scandal involving faulty ignition switches. Some leaders in the company were aware of the problem for years, obfuscating the link between the ill-working device and up to 124 deaths. Barra was the one who had to take Congressional and public heat on behalf of the company’s negligence, expand an already massive recall, and internally clean up the company to the tune of over $900 million in penalties and $600 million in death and injury suits. Not exactly a smooth perch from which to launch an historic appointment.

Look also at Marissa Mayer, the controversial CEO of Yahoo!, brought in to the company in 2012 when it was at a point most industry experts said was irreversible. Today, the company is under agreement to be acquired by telecommunications giant Verizon. Mayer’s tenure has been bumpy at best, yet remains an example of a woman gaining the top spot as the proverbial $hit hits the fan.

And then there is Theresa May, the second female Prime Minister of Great Britain. May was officially appointed in July of this year, after the stunning debacle known as Brexit in which the UK populace narrowly supported a referendum to exit the European Union. The EU, effectively all of Western Europe and a good portion of Eastern Europe, is an open economic market supported by the free flow of labor cross-border, open trade and shared security, along with a single currency for the majority of members. Former PM David Cameron said he would leave office if the UK vote broke toward the “Leave” side, which it did. Fervent “Leave” proponents Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson surprisingly split after their side won the vote, perhaps because they didn’t want to hang around if things got ugly. So into this void stepped the conservative May, who has to figure out how to delicately and skillfully negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU by late 2018 or early 2019.

There are other examples of women stepping into senior roles when things are decidedly mucked up, more than can easily fit in this post. So what drives the existence of the Glass Cliff? Based on anecdotal observation and research, women – or nontraditional – leaders are chosen during a crisis to clearly signal change as Marianne Cooper, sociologist at Stanford University, observes. In other words, a company or institution realizes that what its been doing in the past is obviously failing. It’s time to try something (or someone) new.

Another reason Cooper cites has to do with how women are perceived in terms of situational need. When things are running smoothly, many assume men are better equipped to drive future success. When conditions turn, however, characteristics more commonly associated with women – collaboration, patience, perseverance – become more critical. Whether or not these assumptions are fair to foist upon an individual leader based on gender is another issue. In a crisis, though, let the woman have a try.

Yet the very hope that female leadership will make things right again is a dangerous proposition. What happens when the situation is so dire that nothing except dramatic, uncomfortable and protracted change is the solution? Or when conditions are such that the only sane course of action is to scrap the whole enterprise and start again? It raises the specter of that same female leader finding herself falling, or being pushed off, the very cliff she was triumphantly standing on. Such a fall not only hurts her, it slows down social openness to women leaders in the first place. When more examples are seen as flawed examples, regardless of how fair that perception may be, it makes the climb more difficult for those who follow. Quite the Horror Show.

Would that our women leaders be chosen with greater regularity and consistency, not just when the “monster” is looming and rational hope is wearing thin. Sure, she could easily turn out to be as intrepid, smart and capable as our classic Halloween scream queen heroine. And maybe this time she won’t have to worry about stumbling upon a hidden trap door, or treacherous glass cliff.





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