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Indira Samarasekera, right, and Martha Piper, co-authors of Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went First, stand together in Vancouver’s Point Grey neighbourhood on Oct. 8, 2021.Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera reached the top ranks of academia, breaking new ground as the first – and only – female presidents of two of the country’s foremost universities. Both of them then made the move to corporate boardrooms as directors of prominent banks and private-sector companies. Yet even after years of leadership, they still contended with feelings that they were floundering, unsuited for important roles, or under intense scrutiny when they held those positions.

The force that sustained them was “nerve” – an attribute they define, in a new book Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went First, as the courage and boldness to act. It can be developed and cultivated, they argue, but is often in too short supply among many women who aspire to lead. “Women are notoriously ambivalent about leadership,” they write to open the book’s introduction. And nerve is “one characteristic that we must actively work on developing.”

Ms. Piper, the former president of the University of British Columbia, and Ms. Samarasekera, who was president of the University of Alberta, said in an interview that nerve shaped their leadership in academia. It also helped them find their voices when they joined corporate boards – Ms. Piper at Bank of Montreal and Shoppers Drug Mart Corp., and Ms. Samarasekera at Bank of Nova Scotia and Magna International Inc.

Nerve and how to build it

A headhunter once recounted to Ms. Piper and Ms. Samarasekera that when they call women about leadership roles, too often the reply is, “You’ve got the wrong number, it’s not me, I’m not ready,” Ms. Piper said. “When they call men, invariably the men say, ‘I’ve been waiting for your call, my CV’s in the mail.’ ”

“I think the book basically says it’s on our shoulders. We can no longer claim to be victims, but we need to really step up,” she said. “We think that’s really what nerve is all about, is being able to overcome some of those things that have traditionally kept us from assuming responsibility.”

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In their new book, Samarasekera and Piper write that 'Women are notoriously ambivalent about leadership,' and nerve is 'one characteristic that we must actively work on developing.'Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

At times, they had to work up their own nerve. But at every stage, they also sought out sponsors whose support helped build and bolster their nerve – “initially, largely from men because that was the world I lived in,” Ms. Samarasekera said. That started in her youth when her father’s encouragement helped her overcome “cold feet” about going into the male-dominated field of engineering and continued through her career. “Every single very important position that I should have taken, I wouldn’t have taken had I not had someone pushing,” she said.

Flailing to flourishing

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

“What do I do? I take a course. I go learn. I try to be mentored. I read everything I can,” she said. She secured support from board chairs to take courses geared to directors at large companies from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The course work and case studies gave her renewed confidence and her review scores went up over time.

Ms. Samarasekera also felt she “was floundering” early in her time on Scotiabank’s board. In part, that was because she fell into the “trap” of feeling she had to be an expert in all areas, she said. What she learned was she needed instead to use her expertise to ask probing questions that broadened and shaped the board’s discussions.

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

In the spotlight

The first woman to hold any high-profile role attracts extra attention. In Ms. Piper’s case, that included scrutiny of how she looked, of her spouse and children, and of her activities outside work. “I was unprepared, I really was. I was surprised by the scrutiny and the intensity of it,” Ms. Piper said. “But that was probably easier, in some ways, than the professional scrutiny: Everything you say, every decision you make is up for discussion.”

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

“Where I got into trouble was when you end up needing to be liked … then you start being afraid of taking difficult positions. You need to understand that everything you do as you begin to lead shouldn’t be taken personally. It’s business,” she said. “I still have difficulty. It’s not something that goes away. What I now know is it’s okay. It’s part of finding your voice. It’s part of having nerve, and it goes with the territory.”

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