The Accidental CEO: Transcending the Glass Ceiling

By Hope Phillips Umansky, PhD.

“You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.” – The Wicked Witch, The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, 1900.

My mom always said the only thing you can never lose in your life is your education. Money comes and goes; relationships change; children grow and leave. You can lose your house, job, and relationship, but no one can ever take your education away from you. She was a career educator and much of what I know about being a servant leader in education is from having watched my mom while growing up, coloring in the back of board and faculty meetings, listening to her teach English literature to students, tutoring them in writing, and enacting the characters from the books to bring them to life for her students. All the fun she had with them and making connections. My heart knew I was an educator. Education is something that grows deep inside and integrates with who you are. All else is transitory. What remains is our character, and how we have educated ourselves about the world, and the people inside of it. Therefore, I wanted to teach, write, and live a relatively quiet, no-pressure life. That’s why I always referred to myself as the “Accidental CEO” of a private graduate school.

First and always, I am a writer, a teacher, a lover of words, and a helper of students finding their voice and the confidence to succeed. People have said I am a bit “touched” or special in the way that I can watch a commercial and weep, or tune in to the news and cry, and then feel joy and laugh at the next show. I feel the human condition deeply. Writing this in May 2020, my heart is shattered for humanity while also rooting for our resilience, our love of each other, and, of course, for hope. Wishing in the deepest deep of my heart that this will be the precipice of change, using our despair and outrage to mark this moment of our hearts reopening to each other.

This heart-centered space of hopefulness and potential is why I fell in love with the field of education, even after training to be a psychologist. I returned to the warm halls of academia, the beautiful engaging family communities that were schools. Nothing is as transformative as a solid education, and that has nothing to do with the degree itself. Mark Twain said, “Don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education,” meaning the real education comes from the lessons between the lines, the things we learn while living or doing the schoolwork: empathy, altruism, the philanthropy of spirit, and the great resilience of human beings. Only education can transform not just an individual’s life but the lives of the family he/she has yet to have and all the generations of elders that came before. That’s an incredible legacy to have by helping guide students toward meaningful educational pathways. If there were ever a time to reinvent me professionally and move into the public sector of my industry to catalyze the movement that I envision, it is now. Apparently, I was a trendsetter, separating myself out from all I no longer needed and hopefully paralleling the country’s own moment to reset and reimagine itself.

When I formerly joined the administrative ranks from teaching to become, first, a Dean, and then getting the rare lifetime achievement of being appointed as a CEO, I quickly learned that all the creativity and passion that got me there was not welcome to live among the compliance, accreditation, curriculum, problem-solving, ever-negotiating, board managing, fire-fighting (yes, even literally one time), policy clarifying, revising, and writing that goes on all day every day. Even an email is a complex negotiation, a potential power play on who is or is not included, blindly, copied, and vividly. Every year, my professional identity, the professor, who was inspired to write funny, witty, deep lectures comparing current events, historical context, pop culture, film, and literature together to teach and move students was fading. The creative soul in me, the humanitarian spirit, was feeling compromised by the shifting priorities of higher education. Do not let its veneer fool you. Higher education is cutthroat. Get donors or die! Fundraise or Perish! Find those tuition drivers or fade away! At first, the CEO role was about leading a campus through aspirational goals and close interpersonal coaching of students’ whole selves, interfacing with faculty, boards, the public, and academic experts who, over time, became comrades and friends toward pursuing a mission. Then, seemingly overnight, it became all about fundraising and compliance which left me feeling stifled and trapped, like a bird in the gilded cage: “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage, A beautiful sight to see, You may think she’s happy and free from care, She’s not, though she seems to be …” (Lamb & Tilzer, 1900, A Bird in the Gilded Cage, [song]).

Apparently, an unwritten rule circulated on a memo that did not make it to my inbox: as a woman, you seemingly have an obligation to over-perform if you make it to the C-suite. If you manage to slip through the crack of the glass ceiling you popped out of, now you have to stay. Representing in the C-suite for women, you have to show well. If you cry, feel, or emote, that is no good. You don’t want to be perceived as weak or the dreaded, “too emotional,” “too invested.” or “too parental,” even with your own. If firing a person turns your blood cold and makes you vomit, churning at your insides for weeks leading up to the moment because the implications your words will have will be life-changing, do not mention your reticence or care. Just do it. Suck it up. People say it is lonely at the top. If you cannot do it, someone else will without an issue.

To be sure, whether man or woman in the C-suite, you will lose the popularity contest; whatever move you make is second-guessed. You must be always loyal and proper. First, of course, to the institution and uphold a private and reserved persona aligned with the institutional mission. The shine started to wear away. It lost its shine the way a relationship does when the bloom comes off the rose; when you think, am I being gaslit? What is happening that I am not seeing? The idea that I was playing it small snuck up on me at quiet moments. When I experienced the power of being able to pull a community together by speaking publicly and extemporaneously for a mission, a purpose that comes from the heart, the thought came to me that maybe I can be doing more. If this comes so easy, speaking boldly, publicly, and from the heart about education, if I can compel people with my rogue vision and authenticity here in this sphere, couldn’t I do more to help under-served, under-represented, and under-educated groups? My vision helped students with whom I worked and elevated the brand to mean something to people, but couldn’t my views as an institutional leader, values such as human kindness, academic integrity, and student-centrism-now seen as rogue front-lined initiatives in this climate-make a difference in the higher education landscape? Instead of talking about students as tuition drivers and enrollment markers, my vision is simple: a return to humanity in education.

Make no mistake-what is playing out on the world stage is connected to the last few decades of systematic divestments of the arts, literature (uncensored and unredacted), and non-revisionist history in education. Inevitably, it is blamed on a perceived “lack of funding” and feigns under a façade of political correctness that parades as inclusive, but insidiously perpetuates exclusion, discrimination, and inequality. As a field, we are so far from where we originated as a cultivator of the human spirit, creativity, beauty, and invention, that it can be disheartening. But what if I could form a movement, have a platform, and speak on this issue? It nagged at me to not play small anymore. This past spring, a few months before my departure, I was walking the halls in the early evenings making sure the campus was ready before the students descended, and a sing-song memory of childhood came back to me. It was of my mom softly singing to me before bed, when I was upset, about my name. According to her, it was the most important name in the world. She showed me that hope is the greatest thing in all of history, literature, and the arts. Never being one to tone down expectations, she would say, it is a big name to live up to; don’t forget you don’t play it small. Now, in the recesses of my mind, I see her down on her knees putting a band-aid on me, and I can hear her sing-song her favorite poem by Emily Dickinson’s, Hope is the thing with feathers:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

The culmination of my life’s tragic and triumphant experiences and education had brought me to this moment. Something stirred; I would be open to the charge, to the call, when and if I got it.

The cognitive dissonance became real. As spring turned to summer, my heart started to shatter, and I remembered that the Tin Man had been sternly warned by the wizard in The Wizard of Oz that a heart was not an easy thing to have: “As for you, my galvanized friend, you want a heart. You don’t know how lucky you are not to have one. Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable” (The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, 1900).

That is when I thought, Okay, Dr. Hope, regroup. You have done this before. No one says you have to stay. When women hear that you left, you resigned, from a CEO position, especially in higher education, they say, “Oh, my God! You left?” “Why would you do that?” “WHAT HAPPENED?!?!” It is almost as if it is a micro-betrayal, a small cut in your allegiance to sisterhood. You somehow squeaked by, you somehow got in, and, then, “YOU LEFT????” You broke the glass ceiling and now have left it in a pile of dust. Only a few get through. How could you?

There are some things worth not compromising your vision. One is your heart. Advocacy for students’ rights and the student experience is most important to me. Wherever we are in life, if our creativity won’t spark, if we find ourselves crawling back into ourselves, it is time to regroup. No title is worth your essence. “The caged bird sings with a fearful trill, of things unknown, but longed for still, and his tune is heard on the distant hill, for the caged bird sings of freedom,” Maya Angelou (1969) affirmed that the great metaphor and question of her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is resilience and a boundless spirit. In 2020, more importantly, the question is not so much why the caged bird sings, but does she have to? I mean, especially, while she’s in the cage?

One day I did what I did not think I could do, and left my CEO role. One day the sparkle dust entered just right, flickering between the gaps in the bars, to show me where the light was to enter from the unknown-that there was air to breathe out there-and that day, I just let it all go. “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life, he can only respond by being responsible” (Viktor Frankl, 1946, Man’s Search for Meaning). There was no crawling back through the very small hole left in the ceiling that I was now standing on, no chance of backing out of it like a kid, butt-first stuck in a one-way tunnel, trying to get my body through the small jagged hole to the other side. When that did not work, I imagined reversing that still, trying to dive back to the simplicity of uncut glass, and I could not get back through. It was impossible-every time making the bleep, soft sound of an object bouncing back into the vortex as some actions can never be undone. It is a one-way ceiling for sure.

Picturing myself invincible as a little girl in my favorite Dorothy’s The Wizard of Oz costume that I had gotten for my sixth birthday that year and refused to take off. In this dreamy state, I wondered how one could get so far from home with only the click of the shoes to get back there. I imagined myself with the hard-red patent leather Mary Janes (complete with band-aids on the soles so that I wouldn’t slip on the glass’s slippery surface). I jumped up and slammed down as hard as I could to crack it. Top to bottom this time; knees up and feet landing together hard. It is this girl’s endless potential and belief in herself, as yet unadulterated by life’s disappointments, triumphs, and tragedies, so innocent still to think that what finally cracked the glass back was to just shatter the whole goddamn thing open to bring me home again.

About the Author

Hope Phillips Umansky, PhD, Consulting Psychologist, American Culture Professor.

Dr. Hope, as she is professionally known, is an esteemed professor, keynote speaker & author. As a professor, her expertise is in American culture, Writing & Rhetoric, Strategic Communications, and Leadership. Additionally, after a near-decade as a CEO for a clinical and integrative psychology and integrative health graduate institute, Dr. Hope also now works as a consulting psychologist, strategist, and professor.

Find Dr. Hope on the Web:

Dr. Hope’s Educational Consulting

Dr. Hope’s Psychology Consulting Practice

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