Leadership research has taken a qualitative turn away from simply measuring how many women make it to the top, to examining the circumstances under which they come into and hold positions of leadership. An interesting phenomenon that has been unearthed by University of Exeter academics Ryan and Haslam has been termed “the glass cliff” and refers to the finding that women are more likely to gain a leadership position when the organisation is in the midst of crisis.

Experimental studies have confirmed this phenomenon, in particular revealing that:

  • If an organisation is performing well and historically has had more male heads, males are preferred by participants to continue in the top job
  • If an organisation is performing poorly and historically has more male heads, the female candidate in the experimental set-up is chosen to replace the existing CEO
  • If an organisation historically has more female leaders, the above effect is not observed – in other words there is a strong preference for a female leader only when male leaders have proven grossly ineffective
  • The psycho-social underpinnings of these preferences have been found to be based on stereotypical attributes associated with each gender – competitiveness and decisiveness for men and communication skills and the ability to encourage others in the case of women
  • The impact of the glass cliff phenomenon is felt by women leaders in the following ways:
  • They attract higher levels of scrutiny and criticism
  • There is a cacophony of voices citing different causes for the crisis and the window of opportunity to set the right expectations and turn things around is very small.
  • Learning curve is steep, and often amidst expectations to deliver quick results

Team building at the edge of the cliff

Going into work every day and being in the midst of a happy, well-adjusted team is immensely rewarding. But getting there can be a learning process too. In my experience men, in particular, expect a very assertive brand of leadership. This is in a large part due to the fact that they have encountered, often exclusively, male bosses in previous jobs. With this realisation, women leaders will sometimes need to train themselves to wield their expectations with less reserve. Studies have found women tend to take diverse perspectives into account before making decisions. Usually this is because they care more about ensuring a certain comfort level and ownership among everybody affected by the ultimate course of action agreed upon.

Often, however, this may be interpreted as indecisiveness and prevarication. A leader facing a glass cliff situation, in particular, does not have the luxury of time. What seems to work is to trust your gut and invest more energy in communicating why this is the best way forward under the circumstances, to ensure buy-in. This is a tight-rope to walk when you are trying to create a team of self-starters who need minimal direction and work well with each other even in your absence. The difficulty of achieving both might just be the reason why so many leaders opt for the “my way or the highway approach” and end up creating followers rather than other leaders.

It is also commonly observed that women leaders care more about the well-being of individual team members and the atmosphere in the office, compared to male counterparts. Girls are taught to care about everyone and everything, whereas boys are encouraged to doggedly pursue whatever it is they want and this makes all the difference in the world of work. This makes a great case for having many more women in managerial positions where you are required to give so much of yourself to ensure the success of those around you.

Organisational culture and middle management – looking up from the edge of the cliff

As I have hinted at earlier, the default leadership style known to most is male. Most people mistake the “light-touch” for a lack of control and indecisiveness. Men celebrate each other’s accomplishments visibly, generally accompanied by a great deal of back-slapping and profuse displays of bromance. But underneath the surface, they are also more competitive. Women support each other in more nuanced ways – picking up groceries, covering for each other in case of a scheduling conflict or simply being a shoulder to cry on. Perhaps if in addition we celebrated each other’s achievements more, the contributions of women overall would become audible over the constant clamour of the boys clubs?

I could say a lot about the trappings of middle-management but I will only say here that it is not for the faint hearted. Women in these positions are in particular singled out for criticism from the upper echelons which are often all-male. There could be added pressure from a senior management that sends the message that they have “taken a risk” by “allowing” a woman to lead. There is a failure to understand that women have access to a much wider range of tools to lead and get work done beyond the all-too familiar techniques of male-style leadership which include strong-arming, manipulation, being distant and unavailable and in extreme cases, verbal or other forms of abuse.

This is particularly the case with the work culture in India where aspects women emphasise more such as attention to detail, responsiveness, individualised solutions and emotional well-being at work are grossly under-valued. Instead stuff men have a knack for like making outcomes look bigger than they actually are by throwing together a lengthy report packed with graphs at the eleventh hour seems to be all anyone cares about.

You can shatter the ceiling…but you must scale the cliff

As with most other challenges, this is a great learning opportunity but through it all the safest bet is to play to your strengths. Ambition does not have to mean tooting your horn every chance you get. If anything, to get to the top, you must pick your battles and remember that timing is everything. Often it amounts to being blades of grass in the face of storms so that you live to fight another day.

The only goal worth setting your sights on is being the best at what you do. The rest inevitably follows, and when it does, you step up and take the rough with the smooth. When one gets closer to the top, the pressure to blend in does not go away, if anything it only intensifies. There is more to lose. But leadership is about building people up and not tearing them down. And if women are going to make a difference as leaders it will be because we jealously guard our ability to nurture – of which we have an abundance.

Views are personal.

The author is director, international affairs and global initiatives, at OP Jindal Global University.

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