Are Leadership Messes Women’s Opportunity?

BirdsFemale leadership firsts are trending. Especially when an organization is in big trouble, it seems. Often the choice of a woman appears to be an act of desperation. Fix us, clean up the mess and make it all work. Call mommy to doctor a skinned knee, soothe the troubled waters.

Marissa Mayer at Yahoo for instance, was brought in to stop the bleeding at Yahoo and set it back on a path to profits — when she was pregnant no less.

Chaotic moments can be enormous opportunities for women to move into leadership positions at organizations that have been impervious to women’s advancement due to what Secretary General of the Council of World Leaders Laura Liswood dubs a “thick layer of men” rather than a glass ceiling.

But the ugly underside occurs when women are called in as a Hail Mary pass after previous leaders have so messed up the system that the opportunity can be a set up for failure:

  • When the old systems, or leadership thereof, are corrupt as General Motors. Mary Barra didn’t have much time to celebrate her ascension to the first woman CEO of a major automobile company before she was faced with righting egregious safety wrongs, a moral bankruptcy more likely than economic bankruptcy to do the company in.
  • When an institution is shrinking like the vaunted Riverside a Church in New York which recently appointed its first woman senior minister, Dr. Amy K. Butler.
  • When scandal catapults a woman to a leadership role and being dubbed by Forbes the fifth most powerful woman in the world as it did Christine Lagarde, who became head of the International Monetary Fund in the wake of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrogant sexual behavior.
  • When a tanking economy causes companies to shed higher paid men and take on or retain women who still earn comparatively 25% less than male counterparts.

That’s why women going into these situations need a special set of tools to help them succeed. 

I started writing this post from the ship Isabela II in the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador. While observing first hand natural selection and evolutionary adaptation at work, I’m also reading The Beak of the Finch, a beautifully written narrative of how Charles Darwin and other less known researchers developed their scientific theories of change in the natural world. The tale is told through the work of professors Rosemary and Peter Grant who studied the finches extensively a century after the nondescript little brown birds first prompted Darwin’s idea of evolution of species.

Upon careful observation, the finches turned out to have at least thirteen different beak adaptations, each an exquisitely evolved tool enabling the birds to access the various seeds available in order to survive the harshest island environments.

Similarly, anyone going into an organization in dire need of change will benefit from having specialized tools to clean up the mess while righting the culture and creating a new strategy.

Stepping up to such challenges first requires courage. The courage to embrace power in ways few women have historically done. I’m heartened when pop culture celebs like Kerry Washington encourage women to take more risks. Her “badass” message applies regardless of sector.

Being courageous in an intentional way requires employing practical leadership tools to leverage the opportunity–to “carpe the chaos”—one of the power tools I’ll teach in my
9 Practical Leadership Power Tools to Advance Your Career certificate course. It’s a four-week course, entirely online so you can do the work at your convenience, starting July 16. I’d love to see you there. (You can still get the early bird price for a few more days.)

The course is packed with helpful specific tools and tips. Plus the big bonus is the support and insights you get from and give to other women. We make the online platform surprisingly human.

Let’s face it, if women are ever to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors as Take The Lead’s mission Intends, we must step up, even if the opportunity is rooted in chaos and the risk of failure is high.

If you have taken on a leadership challenge during a time of crisis and chaos, or are considering doing so, please tell us about it. Your story will inspire someone else. For each act of courage makes the path easier for the next woman.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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