OToole (left) at City Hall on Monday morning.
  • Photo by Joe Mirabella
  • O'Toole (left) at City Hall on Monday morning when she was nominated to become Seattle first female police chief.

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.