A Leadership of Refusal: Remaking the Narrative of the Falling Leader

Bell, Emma; Sinclair, Amanda and Vachhani, Sheena (2024). A Leadership of Refusal: Remaking the Narrative of the Falling Leader. British Journal of Management (early access).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8551.12820


The metaphor of the glass cliff is used to describe patterns whereby women are more likely to be selected for challenging leadership positions that have a higher risk of failure. This article explores how the glass cliff metaphor contributes to a narrative of woman’s fall which individualises a leader’s responsibility to avoid risks that may lead to their failure. As an alternative, we introduce the leadership of refusal as a feminist resource for remaking the narrative of woman’s fall. Refusal is understood as an embodied political and ethical stance that declines to recognize, rather than resist or simply oppose, masculine leadership norms. Through analysis of how three women leaders were represented by the media, former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, former Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, and climate change activist, Greta Thunberg, we analyse key moments of refusal where these leaders breached the masculine order through their embodied performances. We argue that a leadership of refusal enables understanding of how women leaders exercise power in agentic, non-sacrificial ways. We therefore urge leadership researchers to position refusal centrally, as first saying no in order to take risks towards achieving transformative action is, we suggest, a defining feature of leadership.

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