Candid and insightful perspectives on the dilemmas and opportunities women confront as they take on leadership positions
Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera had vastly different career paths on their way to becoming the first (and so far only) female presidents of two of Canada’s largest and most respected research universities and directors of some of the nation’s largest market cap companies, but what they had in common was their gender, their willingness to take risks when leadership opportunities presented themselves, and a work ethic second to none. It was not always easy, pretty, or fair, but it was always the result of choosing to answer the call to lead. A call that in the authors’ view, too many women still turn away from.
In Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went First, Piper and Samarasekera share their personal and professional stories, offering guidance for women leaders of every age and at every stage of their career. Nerve is a must-read for any woman who is leading today, considering leading, or thinking about life after leading.
About the authors
Indira Samarasekera served as the first woman president of the University of Alberta and is a director of Magna International, TC Energy, and Stelco and has served as a director of the Bank of Nova Scotia. An Officer of the Order of Canada, she was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Martha Piper served as the first woman president of the University of British Columbia and has been a director of the Bank of Montreal, Shoppers Drug Mart, and TransAlta Corporation. An Officer of the Order of Canada, she was born in Lorain, Ohio, and lives with her husband, William Piper, in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Excerpt: Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went First (by (author) Martha Piper & Indira Samarasekera; foreword by Kim Campbell)
We never thought we would ever write a book together. But as time passed and we continued to hear from women who for various reasons were reluctant to lead or who sought information and advice on leadership, we reached the conclusion it was time to speak up, recount our experiences and share the lessons we have learned, in the hope that we would encourage other women to find the nerve to step up and lead.
Drawing upon our wealth of experience, we review the similarities and disparities in our respective childhoods, educational backgrounds, early career decisions and serendipitous events we believe helped prepare us to lead. In addition, we address the significant challenges, as well as the highs and lows, women leaders face on a day-to-day basis. Finally, we recount the experiences we have had in redefining the purpose of our life after stepping down from our leadership positions. Focusing on the three aspects of the leadership journey—what comes before leading, what comes with leading and what comes after leading—we share our personal stories and outline the lessons learned as we navigated our careers as women leaders, revealing along the way the decisions, attitudes and experiences that female leaders frequently encounter, as well as the personal characteristics common to women in leadership roles.
Throughout this conversation, we conclude that, for women, there is a common thread connecting these three phases of leadership: nerve—developing your nerve to lead, drawing upon your nerve when leading, and finding the nerve to reinvent yourself when you no longer are leading. Nerve: the personal attribute that we believe is not only required to lead but is often missing in women, even in those who aspire to lead. Nerve to be true to yourself, nerve to take a path less traveled, nerve to go first, nerve to act decisively, nerve to redefine yourself. Women are good at most things: we know how to work hard, we often overprepare for whatever task we are performing, we are proficient at collaboration, consultation and compromise—all important traits of leadership. But if there is one characteristic that we must actively work on developing and consciously draw upon as we chart our course as leaders, it is nerve. Not easy, not obvious, not immediately part of our repertoire.
“Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera rank with Canada’s most accomplished leaders of their generation, having led at the topmost levels in higher education, government policy-making and corporate boardrooms with legendary results. Now they tell us, with compelling stories and wise advice, how they did it to inspire women to answer the call to lead and follow in their footsteps. These are great lessons not just for women but for all of us who can learn to lead from their remarkable example.” — Rob Prichard, President Emeritus, University of Toronto
“This book is a gem. Nerve could easily be titled Grit and Grace, two entwined values dramatically explored through its pages. It tackles the unique challenges facing women leaders with compelling practical advice and imaginative resilience of two extraordinary women. It is a valuable manual for anyone — female or male — interested in the anatomy of leadership.” — David Johnston, Governor General of Canada (2010–2017)
“A step-by-step guide on how to overcome the self-doubt and paralyzing fear of failure instilled in us from our very beginnings by a world that still doesn’t welcome women into leadership. Piper and Samarasekera draw a map for women who are determined to beat the odds and take the risks necessary to grasp the brass ring. And then, once you have it, how to use your power for good. I couldn’t put it down.” — Honourable Christy Clark, Premier of British Columbia (2011–2017)
“Part memoir, part leadership book, Nerve takes us on the lifelong journeys of Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera, culminating in their respective presidencies of two world-class institutions, University of British Columbia and University of Alberta. The compelling real-life stories of pitfalls and triumphs make Nerve definitely inspiring and empowering for future leaders.” — Sara Seager, OC, Professor of Planetary Science, Astrophysics and Aerospace Engineering at MIT, and bestselling author of The Smallest Lights in the Universe
“Nerve is a timely contribution to our collective knowledge about women and leadership. The authors’ shared learning, moving personal stories and reflective questions offer all of us—leaders and those who aspire to be—a powerful set of lessons. And yes, a reminder that above all, it is vital to find joy and ‘gather the sweet nectar out of life.” — Barbara Grantham, President and CEO, CARE Canada