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Indira Samarasekera and Martha Piper have been leaders in post-secondary education every step of the way, right up to the presidencies of two of Canada’s top research universities.

They explore what they’ve learned in a new book, Nerve: Lessons on Leadership From Two Women Who Went First.

Samarasekera made University of Alberta history in 2005 as its first female president and vice-chancellor. Eight years earlier, Piper did the same at the University of British Columbia. Along the way, Samarasekera, who has a PhD in metallurgical engineering, was vice-president of research at UBC. Piper, trained in epidemiology at McGill, served from the mid-1980s to 1997 as dean of the U of A’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and vice-president of research and external affairs.

Piper and Samarasekera will share lessons from their lives and careers in a U of A webinar on Oct. 19. In advance of the event, they talk about what they’ve learned about leadership, expectations, failure and the elusive idea of “balance.”

You centre your book around the idea of “nerve.” Why is that important for women in leadership?

Samarasekera: The landscape of leadership has for generations been shaped by men. So, for women to enter that arena has required overturning expected behaviours. That’s where the nerve comes in. Your struggle is: Do I do it like they do? Or do I do it differently? Women are different in so many ways, and that means you have to have nerve to disrupt the old order and the old expectations.

Piper: There’s research that shows men are given second chances much more than women. Hence, women – especially those who are going first and under so much scrutiny – are sometimes reluctant to take risks. But if you don’t take risks, you’re not going to make a difference. Indira and I realized that we were willing to risk. We were willing to take on some of the old expectations and do things differently.

Former U of A president Indira Samarasekera (left) and former UBC president Martha Piper leaders, women, lead

Former U of A president Indira Samarasekera (left) and former UBC president Martha Piper, co-authors of the new book, Nerve: Lessons on Leadership From Two Women Who Went First, talk about taking risks, handling crises and balancing priorities, dealing with failure and more. (Photo: Taehoon Kim)

In the book you write about times when things didn’t go as planned. How do you handle times of crisis as a leader?

Samarasekera: Know what your principles are. Know what you stand for and what you will and will not do. Because when everybody’s telling you to do a hundred different things in the middle of a crisis, you really have to dig deep and say: What do I absolutely believe in? And will I be willing to take the heat for standing up for that?

Piper: If you faltered or you made a mistake, you need to acknowledge that. When you tell it like it is, people are pretty genuine and generous. As a leader, if you cannot defend what you have done on the front page of the newspaper, you’re doing the wrong thing.

What advice do you have for women in leadership – or anyone, really – trying to find balance in their lives?

Samarasekera: There is no such thing. If you really want to make a difference and create a fulfilling life and career, there are times when you are going to have to work very hard at one thing and let go of some other things. And some of them may be in conflict or they may be irreconcilable. I think the metaphor is to juggle, not balance. You’ve got five balls in the air. Some you have to throw really high and others you just have to keep in the air.

Piper: I think there’s a gender issue here. How many times are men asked whether they have balance in their lives? I believe you can’t have at all. Thinking we can is an assumption that hurts us. You have to make choices, and you have to make them almost every day because your priorities can change from day to day.

What have you learned about dealing with failure in your time as leaders?

Piper: It’s very difficult not to take it personally, not to feel that you are the cause of the problem or the failure when often, particularly in leadership roles, you become a victim of circumstances. Having said that, I think the first thing is to recognize that failure is part of success. If you don’t fail, you are not going to move the needle.

What would you say to people who aren’t leaders or don’t want to be leaders? 

Piper: It’s not just the president or the CEO who are leading. You lead through your actions and through your voice every step of the way. It’s part of being human to contribute to society. You can lead as a parent. You lead as a partner. You lead as a professional worker. Some of the toughest leadership is not when you have a title, but when you’re just put in a situation where you have to make a difficult decision.

What is one thing you wish people knew about leadership?

Samarasekera: I think people undervalue happy chance. Very often in life, the best things that happen to you — that open doors, that allow you to develop as a leader – are things you didn’t plan. Martha tells the story of how she had been asked to apply for UBC, and she was terrified.

Piper: It was one of those terribly cold winter nights in Edmonton. We were at the U of A Faculty Club, and (former deputy prime minister) Don Mazankowski walked me out to unplug my car. I had gotten to know him in his role on the board of governors at the U of A. I asked him about the UBC presidency opportunity because I respected him and valued his opinion. What he told me was a serendipitous intervention. I might never have walked out to the car with him. I might never have confided in him. He said to me, “Once, maybe twice in your life, if you’re lucky, you’ll have an opportunity that will never come again. If you want to be president of UBC, it won’t come again. You’ll be too old or they won’t be interested in you.” And I can tell you, if that intervention had not happened, I would not have applied. It’s just that simple.

Samarasekera: Often when you look back at those profound moments in life, you wonder: How many things did you miss because you weren’t open to happy chance?

| By Lisa Szabo

Lisa Szabo is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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