Why Won’t Disney’s Anne Sweeney Lean In? Women and Leadership Dilemmas

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This decision, personal as it is, is a blow to larger hopes for women’s leadership.

Anne Sweeney doesn’t want to lean in.

In an announcement that had people doing double-takes on their email alerts, Sweeney told the world on Tuesday that, No, thanks, she would rather not run a part of the Disney empire. What she really wants to do is direct.

Really?

This decision, personal as it is, is a blow to larger hopes for women’s leadership. And it comes in the very week that we learn yet again that women characters remain persistently sparse in the movies, and a day after Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg launched a #banbossy campaign to encourage girls to shake off naysayers, step up and lead.

Also read: Cate Blanchett Was Right – Women Making Little-to-No Progress in Landing Major Movie Roles

But Sweeney says she does not want to lead anymore. “There has always been a nagging voice in the back of my head pushing me to step out of the comfort zone of the executive ranks and more directly into the creative arena that enticed me to TV in the first place,” she said in her statement.  She added, “I finally listened to that voice and thought, ‘If not now, when?”

Fair enough. But let’s be honest about this. Sweeney’s decision to step off the leadership path sends a signal, whether she likes it or not.

Certainly she must do what she feels is right for herself. And it is impossible to know at this stage if there are other unstated factors at play — health, familial or other — that led to this decision.

But the timing is decidedly odd. Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger will retire in 2016. Sweeney was known to be one of his favored deputies and there is no reason to think she would not have been in the running to be CEO.

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It’s a job she has made known that she does not want, Disney insiders tell me.

In her current role Sweeney is already responsible for the Walt Disney Co.’s global entertainment and news television properties, which include ABC Studios, the ABC Owned Television Stations Group and the ABC Television Network, representing more than 200 affiliated U.S. stations and tens of millions of viewers. She is responsible for ABC Family and the Disney Channels Worldwide, the family of networks including Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior, Disney Cinemagic, Hungama, and Radio Disney.

There is little doubt that Iger’s successor will come from the rank of Disney’s lucrative television or cable divisions. Sweeney was certainly a contender.

Also read: Anne Sweeney Exits Disney: TheWrap Picks Potential Replacements

“A lot of people wanted that (CEO) job for me,” Sweeney told Cynthia Littleton at Variety. “What I knew was that as great as that job is, it wasn’t the job I wanted for myself. I did not want that as my next chapter.”

That’s too bad. Let’s think about what that might have looked like: a woman CEO running one of the largest media companies in the world, heading up one of the most cherished and influential American cultural brands.

As a woman passionate about women’s leadership, and frustrated by the persistently low numbers in board rooms, on boards of directors, I can’t help but feel disappointed at her choice. It’s one more highly capable, and highly accomplished woman out of the running.

Anne Sweeney owed no debt to her gender, or to me for that matter. Bob Iger gave a gracious tribute to Sweeney in her decision to leave him and the organization that promoted rewarded her handsomely for her work.

On a personal note, like Iger I wish her well. On a more deeply personal note — I wish she’d have leaned in for a few more years.