Two women on how ‘nerve’ shaped their leadership in academia and corporate boardrooms

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Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera rose to the top ranks of academics, breaking new ground as the first – and only – female presidents of two of the country’s leading universities. The duo then stepped into the corporate boardroom as directors of major banks and private sector companies. Yet even after years of leadership, they still struggled with feelings that they were faltering, unsuitable for key roles, or subjected to intense scrutiny when they held those positions.

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The force that kept them going was the “nerve”—a trait they define in a new book Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went Before To act as courageous and courageous. They argue that it can be developed and developed, but it is often in short supply among the many women who aspire to lead. “Women are notorious about leadership,” she writes to open the book’s introduction. And nerve is “a trait we must be actively working on developing.”

Ms. Piper, former president of the University of British Columbia and Ms. Samarasecera, president of the University of Alberta, said in an interview that their leadership in academia shaped nerves. It also helped her find her voice when she joined the corporate boards – Ms. Piper and Shoppers Drug Mart Corp at the Bank of Montreal, and Ms. Summersekera at the Bank of Nova Scotia and Magna International Inc.


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nerve and how to make it

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A headhunter once told Ms. Piper and Ms. Summeraskera that when they call on women in leadership roles, the answer is often, “You have the wrong number, it’s not me, I’m not ready,” said Ms. Piper. “When they call men, invariably men say, ‘I’m waiting for your call, I have my CV in the mail.’ “

“I think the book basically says it’s on our shoulders. We can no longer claim to be victims, but we really need to step up,” she said. “We feel really nervous. What is, is being able to take away some of the things that have traditionally held us back from assuming responsibility.”

Sometimes they had to get their veins done on their own. But at every level, she also sought out sponsors, whose support helped build and strengthen her nerve – “in the beginning, largely from men because that was the world I lived in,” said Ms. Samarasekera . It began in her youth when her father’s encouragement helped her overcome her “cold feet” about moving into the male-dominated field of engineering and continued through her career. “Every single very important position I should have taken, I wouldn’t have taken if I hadn’t had a push,” she said.


Ms. Piper had just completed her first year on BMO’s board when she received an appraisal from her fellow directors: “I felt like I had just taken a cold shower,” she writes in the book. She was used to excelling, but was rated below average, and she felt lost and overwhelmed. So she returned to her academic training.

“What do I do? I take a course. I go to learn. I try to guide. I read everything I can,” she said. She attended Harvard University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania Gained support from board chairs to take courses designed for directors of majors. The course work and case studies gave her new confidence and her review scores grew over time.

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Ms Samarasekera also felt that she was “beating up” early in her time on the board of Scotiabank. In part, this was because she had fallen into the “trap” of feeling that she had to be an expert in all fields, she said. What he learned was that he needed it rather than using his expertise to ask probing questions that detailed and shaped the board’s discussions.

“When I first joined the board, I would write down every question anyone asked that I thought was an impressive intervention,” she said. “And I’ll review it and say, why did he ask this question, or did he?”

in the headlines

The first lady to take on any high-profile role deserves extra attention. In Ms. Piper’s case, that included an investigation into how she looked, of her wife and children, and of her activities outside of work. “I wasn’t ready, I really was. I was shocked by the investigation and its intensity,” said Ms. Piper. “But it was probably easier in some ways than a professional inquiry: whatever you say, whatever decision you make is up for discussion.”

Her response was to “get up every morning and put on your shoes,” then shift her focus to a few things that were important to accomplish, which helped “tune in to the white noise.” But he also struggled to balance a strong desire to be liked – which he suggests may be more common in women – with the need to be dominant.

“Where I got into trouble is when you need to be liked… then you are afraid to take difficult positions. You need to understand that whatever you do when you start to lead It shouldn’t be taken personally. It’s business,” she said. “I still have difficulty. It is not something that goes away. What I know now is fine. It’s part of finding your voice. It’s part of being a nerve, and it goes with the area. “

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