The news headlines have been dominated by Brexit for weeks (Football World Cup excluding). Now the attention is on Theresa May and her ability (or not) to bring two warring factions inside her Cabinet together long enough to have a common view of next step and negotiations.
What interests me here is the glass cliff phenomenon first defined by academics Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam in 2005. Whilst women were now achieving more high profile leadership positions, they were also more likely than men to find themselves on a ‘glass cliff’, such that their positions were risky or precarious.
The theory then is that a woman is selected to handle a situation that is impossible to handle, the selectors knowing that it will fail and set the scene for a man to come to the rescue. Either a covert or overt act, it reinforces the stereotype of male supremacy and female fragility – despite the fact that it’s usually a male dominated structure that has generated the mess in the first place. Does this scenario fit though in the case of Theresa May?
Certainly Brexit is a precarious situation and in many ways a lose-lose one. Whether we stay in or stay out, or sit half-way no-one will be satisfied and corporate UK will be the poorer for it. (Incidentally this is a mess generated by a male dominated hierarchical structure – another blog, another time).
A dysfunctional corporate
And the process has revealed in all its glory the fault lines within government. Let’s consider the ruling party as a corporate. The PM has a dysfunctional Board exhibiting little leadership themselves, invisible senior managers and by turns a baying and nonplussed workforce. Whatever targets they may be achieving are being done so by default or through individual effort and unacknowledged leadership. Departments are operating as independent units with little cohesion or a wider strategic purpose. If this was a commercial operation they could well be on the way to joining the ranks of Maplin or HomeBase.
In essence Theresa May is balancing with one foot either side of a glass ravine, rather than on a cliff.
A poisoned chalice
It seems to me that what leadership skills she has are being expended on keeping that dysfunction from trashing her organisation, those who were responsible for putting her in that leadership position. Let’s put to one side for now about how she picked her Board/Cabinet, again another blog, another time. Listening to the commentators quoting from government sources, she remains in place because she is the only thing that is holding the team together. It may well be a sad state of affairs but why wouldn’t we view this as leadership? Her driver is to prevent irreparable splits and at present she is keeping it together; yet it is a poisoned chalice. Whatever the outcome from her careful, some might say tentative handling of ‘the boys’, the organisation will undoubtedly be ‘rescued’ by the male who succeeds her.
And then there’s Brexit. By the time she is replaced the trauma of the negotiations will be fading. That particular glass cliff will have turned into a slow moving glacier as the repercussions felt and laboriously dealt with. Thus corporate UK will also be rescued.
So is this a glass cliff scenario? I think it’s worse than that. This is a glass ravine where the challenges on either side are so severe that no male wanted to take on any leadership role. It fell to a woman to deal with two impossible tasks and I cannot see anyone coming in with ice boots to help her secure a foothold. Failure at some level is inevitable and thus the stereotype will be reinforced.