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Do leaders need to address the ‘glass cliff’?

Research shows that women and people from ethnic minorities are more likely to be chosen to lead a company, sports team, or even a country when it is in crisis mode.

You’ve probably heard of the glass ceiling - that invisible barrier for women trying to break through to the highest levels of leadership. But the few women and other members of underrepresented groups who do break the glass ceiling often face the glass cliff.

The glass cliff is the term where a woman or person of colour is promoted to a senior leadership position during a difficult time when the risk of failure is high. While those positions often present a significant career progression opportunity, they also come with many downsides – such as stress, burnout, and derailed careers.

The correlation between diversity and performance

There are countless studies confirming that diversity in leadership is a good thing. A recent Boston Consulting Group research found that increasing diversity in leadership teams increases profits, whilst another study of 22,000 firms found that organisations with more women in their board rooms and on their executive teams were more profitable. So, to sum it up - when diversity increases, so does company performance.

UN Women has recently highlighted that the Covid-19 pandemic has underscored society's reliance on women both on the front line and at home, while simultaneously exposing structural inequalities across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection.

The pandemic has introduced a new phenomenon - the ‘shecession’. Whilst men were more likely to die of Covid-19, women were more likely to lose work opportunities. Research by McKinsey suggests that women make up 39 percent of global employment but account for 54 percent of overall job losses and due to “a gender-regressive scenario in which no action is taken to counter these effects, we estimate that global GDP growth could be $1tn lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector.”

The role of inclusive leadership

What leaders say and do makes up to a 70 percent difference as to whether an individual employee feels included. The more employees feel included, the more they speak up, go the extra mile, and collaborate — all of which ultimately improves organisational performance. For those working around a leader, such as a manager, direct report or peer, the single most important trait generating a sense of inclusiveness is a leader’s visible awareness of bias.

Inclusive leadership is a critical capability to leverage diverse thinking in a workforce with diverse markets, customers, and talent. Recent research by Harvard Business Review suggests that only one in three leaders holds an accurate view of their inclusive leadership capabilities. A third believe they are more inclusive than they are actually perceived by those around them to be, while the third lack confidence in their inclusive leadership capability and so do less than they could to actively guide others and challenge the status quo.

Without humility and empathy, it’s difficult for leaders to gain deep insights into the nature of their blind spots or remedial strategies and, therefore, to grow. At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at


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