With Mayor Ed Murray, Council Member Bruce Harrell, and former chief Harry Bailey. Joe Mirabella

The day after Barack Obama was elected president, amid the financial collapse of 2008 and as America careened into recession, the Onion declared: "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job." It's a great joke. But it brings up a sobering issue that's been getting a lot of attention recently: the "glass cliff." When minorities and women finally break into high-ranking positions, it tends to be within failing organizations—thereby making their own terms as executives more likely to end in failure.

Dr. Christy Glass, a sociology professor at Utah State University who coauthored a 2013 study on barriers to minority leadership, explained it on NPR on May 19: "If the glass ceiling means that there are invisible barriers that limit the mobility of women and minorities, the glass cliff suggests that when women and minorities are promoted, they tend to be promoted to struggle at firms or to firms in crisis. In other words, they're pushed off the glass cliff."

As it happened, that NPR report aired on the same day former Boston police commissioner Kathleen O'Toole was nominated by Mayor Ed Murray to become Seattle's next police chief. O'Toole is poised, cogent, and eminently qualified. She was until recently the inspector general of Ireland's national police force. And she has a track record of taking on organizations in distress.

Still, it was the fact that O'Toole is set to become Seattle's first female chief that drove headlines around the country.

And just like Obama, and the women featured in that NPR story, she will inherit an organization in crisis. When the Seattle City Council moves to confirm O'Toole as chief next month, a confirmation that Council President Tim Burgess says looks certain, she will take over a Seattle Police Department that is in its most miserable condition in decades. Not only is the SPD under a federal court order to fix a pattern of misconduct, two right-wing cop unions have seized power in the top ranks under the new mayoral administration, an accountability system that is supposed to discipline cops for misconduct is widely regarded as impotent, and public trust is in the gutter.

Because of all this, O'Toole will have a harder task than her male predecessors.

There are several reasons a female or minority candidate might be selected to right a listing ship, says NPR social-science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Among them: White men may be more inclined to reject job offers at dysfunctional organizations. That seems true in Seattle: The top choice for a permanent chief in 2010 was a white man named Rick Braziel, a former chief in Sacramento, who rejected the offer at the last minute and left the opening for John Diaz, a Latino man who quit as chief after three years of failing to tame the unruly department. Another common reason to pick a woman, Vedantam says, is that an off-track organization may try to show that "it's actually trying to turn the ship around, it's trying to go in a different direction. One way to do that is to try to find a nontraditional leader." That theory jibes with picking the first woman to run a department that, the Feds say, has a pattern of using excessive force and shows problems with racial bias.

But is O'Toole more likely to fail because she's being given the keys to a pigsty, as the "glass cliff" model suggests? Mayor Murray says that had "never crossed my mind," but the city's first gay mayor argues that women, gays, and people of color "have to try twice as hard, and it's almost like we can't fail."

Throw in the pressure of being responsible for public safety, and the can't-fail intensity couldn't be higher. So what could help? Well, first of all, O'Toole may be even more likely to succeed because she's already proved she's strong enough to break through glass ceilings and is supremely prepared. And while I don't pretend to have all the answers, it seems to me that for O'Toole to succeed, she'll also need to clear three hurdles that previous dudes haven't.

Crush the Police Unions

The two unions that represent Seattle's police officers are widely seen as the source of a testosterone-fueled, racially divisive, old-guard culture that got the SPD into the crisis it's in. The unions have both sued to block reform and filed blizzards of labor complaints that obstruct discipline and reform. The larger of the two labor groups, the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, which represents about 1,200 lower-ranking officers, admits to spending most of its time defending cops named in misconduct investigations and publishes a newspaper for police that uses incendiary language to belittle pro-reform officers and fight changes at the SPD. If O'Toole doesn't crush their influence, reform will not happen. Full stop.

Speaking to a packed house at City Hall on May 19, O'Toole made it obvious how different she may be from previous Seattle police chiefs (who were union members themselves). She bluntly acknowledged the "difficult fight" with unions that lay ahead, but she was reluctant to take direct aim. "As far as I am concerned, we will start with a clean slate," O'Toole announced. "I need to sit down with them and see what issues are pending... I think strong lines of communication are absolutely essential." In that press conference, O'Toole also described her number-one priority: restoring public trust in the department.

But in a follow-up interview, O'Toole refused to name a single problem that the unions have created. Naturally, the new chief cannot squabble excessively in the press. But the only way she can restore deep public confidence in the SPD is by showing that she understands the problems those unions created and their threat to long-term reform, and then unapologetically articulating her plan to neutralize them.

Severely Punish Bad Cops

When Mayor Murray appointed Harry Bailey as interim chief in January, the mayor handed over the keys to these unions. Bailey is the former vice president of SPOG, and he quickly promoted union cronies into the top ranks while demoting progressive cops. Meanwhile, the union representing high-ranking cops filed a complaint this month to block the new chief from recruiting officers from outside Seattle to fill high-ranking slots.

Amid all this, Bailey served what seems to be the union's primary agenda: getting cops off the hook for misconduct. Chief Bailey overturned punishments against seven cops who had already been found guilty of misconduct (at the request of a union president). The resulting scandal revealed that Seattle's police-accountability system was made of Swiss cheese. Punishments are rare, the few that occur involve light penalties, many of those verdicts are overturned in backroom deals, and it takes months to resolve a single case. Restoring trust will require O'Toole to collaborate with the city council to rewrite the discipline codes so officers are punished quickly, their punishments are published, and the penalties for deliberate misconduct are severe. After all, what got the SPD into this mess wasn't just misconduct, it was a persistent belief—fostered by the unions—that officers could get away with it.

Be the Public Face of the SPD

The last permanent chief was 33-year SPD veteran John Diaz. He was admittedly uncomfortable speaking to groups, which was an outsize liability when the public needed assurances that reform was afoot. Where Diaz was awkward—and would contort his arms into impossible positions when he spoke at press conferences while equally contorting his logic as he tried to paint the SPD as a healthy organization when it was actually dying on the operating table—O'Toole is frank, funny, and gracious. At City Hall, she spoke confidently, feet planted on the ground, scarcely considering notes. She joked that trying to avoid reporters before her nomination was announced was like being in the "witness protection program."

O'Toole will have to continually deploy that powerful combination of assertiveness and humanity to assure the public that she is turning this ship around (while actually turning the ship around by removing union stooges from the upper decks and punishing problem cops). But moreover, she must be more charismatic than the unions—be a stronger leader—so that her vision of a healthy, responsible, and just department is more persuasive than the good-ol'-boys club the unions promote.

A woman may have just been given the worst job in the city, but there is every reason to believe O'Toole can prevail without falling off the glass cliff. She is more than qualified. But it will take a combination of confrontational chutzpah, charisma, and discipline that the men before her were unable—or unwilling—to show. From what she's shown us so far, I think she can do it. recommended