I have heard several people say, and have read several articles to the same effect, that what Hockey Canada needs is more women in leadership. That’s undoubted, but often what accompanies such statements about the need for more women leaders is the smoking wreckage of a company or organization whose culture is in dire need of fixing. And too frequently, the mess has been made by an all-male, or mostly male, leadership team.
Politics is not much different, especially for parties that have traditionally formed government in Canada. When it comes to electing a leader, rarely do you see women run for the top spot. When you do, they frequently lose out on the job – unless they are running for an interim leadership role, which is also often accompanied by the smoking wreckage of a party in transition from a male party leader. To this day, Canada has never had a female lead a party to victory in a federal election.
The recurring theme here is: Let’s call on a woman if things are really, really bad. If she can fix it – maybe, just maybe – she was a good choice. But if she cannot turn the situation around? Well, the leadership can say they tried with the appointment, but it just didn’t work. Sadly, this creates a legacy of failed female leaders who were often set up to fail by the circumstances they inherited from their male predecessor.
Not knowing what was going on behind closed doors, I can only speculate on what Andrea Skinner, the short-lived interim chair of Hockey Canada, was facing. She took the helm of a mostly (save for two people, including herself) male board of directors to oversee the organization at a time when it was self-destructing.
The same can be said for Liz Truss, who took over the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party and as prime minister after Boris Johnson was almost forced to resign with the economy, and much else, in terrible shape.
Both women lasted no more than a few months, and resigned. Regardless of their conduct as leaders, they took over traditionally male roles on mostly male leadership teams – each during a time of extraordinary crisis – which were previously led by men. They tried, they failed, they resigned. Oh, well. They were given a chance and it did not work out.
Kim Campbell, who took over as leader and prime minister after Brian Mulroney resigned in the face of exceptionally low popularity in the polls, found herself in a similar position as disaster was looming for her party. In the election that followed the Conservatives went from 156 seats to two, and the Liberals went on to form three consecutive majority governments. The Conservative Party has not had a female lead them into an election since then.
In the future, why don’t we start giving women a fighting chance?
For organizations: Elect, appoint or hire a woman to lead a traditionally male-dominated organization at a time when it’s not in crisis. Instead of bringing in a woman to fix things, bring her in to enhance, build and drive an organization that’s already strong and ready to change. There is a very different skill set involved when tasked with saving something rather than growing it.
For women: Refuse jobs where emergency clean-up is all they want you to do, because they likely didn’t want you before things went south. The one person who comes to mind who wisely said “no thank you” was Rona Ambrose, the former federal cabinet minster, interim leader of the Conservative Party and leader of the Opposition who took over from Stephen Harper after his party was defeated in 2015.
Since then, the Conservative Party of Canada has been in relative decline, with three leaders since Mr. Harper having failed to form the government in subsequent elections. Ms. Ambrose was asked if she was going to run in the last leadership contest, but wisely turned down the opportunity. Currently, she is a sought-after business adviser, board member and scholar.
Let’s stop thinking of putting women in leadership roles only when there is a clean-up job to do or when it would just look good to have a female in the role. Let’s think about them when the going is good and when there is a reasonable chance of success, rather than just someone sorting out a mess left by the guys.
Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist, and a leadership coach, based in Calgary Alberta