Lessons on Leadership with Martha Piper, Indira Samarasekera and Joy Johnson

2021, Equity + Justice, Arts + Culture

What does it take to break the glass ceiling? While women have earned more representation in higher education as students and faculty, there is still a distinct lack of women in leadership roles. Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera were both the first female presidents of their respective universities and, so far, the only female presidents at each school. Now, they are sharing their collective learnings with their book Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went First. The book will be launched with a conversation and Q&A hosted by current SFU president Joy Johnson, where they will discuss the book’s themes and their personal experiences as leaders in education.

Fri, 15 Oct 2021

6:00 p.m. (PT)

Online Event with limited in-person capacity

Closed captioning in English will be available at this event.

About Nerve

Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera had vastly different career paths on their way to becoming the first 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. 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 leaders of every age and at every stage of their career.


Martha Piper

President Emeritus, University of 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.

Indira Samarasekera

President Emeritus, University of Alberta

Indira Samarasekera served as the first woman president of the University of Alberta, 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.

Joy Johnson

President, Simon Fraser University

Dr. Joy Johnson, SFU’s 10th president and vice-chancellor, is passionate about SFU’s academic and research mission. As president, Joy is committed to enhancing student learning experiences, working towards reconciliation, and advancing equity, diversity and inclusion across SFU. Prior to her appointment as president, Joy served as SFU’s vice-president, research and international from 2014 to 2020. She currently leads SFU’s equity, diversity and inclusion initiative.

Event Summary

Recap of Lessons on Leadership with Martha Piper, Indira Samarasekera and Joy Johnson

By Des'ree Isibor, Program Assistant, SFU Public Square

In the Q&A session facilitated by SFU President Joy Johnson on their new book Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went First, Indira Samarasekera (president emeritus, University of Alberta) and Martha Piper (president emeritus, University of British Columbia) discussed the inspiration behind their book title as well as some nuggets of wisdom for upcoming and incumbent female leaders.

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As more women aspire to shatter the glass ceiling, what is the one thing that seems to hold them back despite their enthusiasm and hard work?

Martha and Indira’s response to this burning question is: "Nerve," the title of their book. They noticed that women often lack the nerve to take unpopular, seemingly different approaches that could be met with resistance from those they lead. Instead of focusing on how they will be perceived, these two women pioneers urged upcoming leaders to leverage the opportunity of leadership by remaining bold in the face of adversity.

How can women handle being in leadership positions and not being liked?

As a leader, it is not strange to desire applause or want to be liked by those under your leadership. The danger, however, looms in “needing to be liked,” according to Martha. The authors recognize that a high-performing leader may not be everyone’s favourite. Indira encouraged women not to “equate being liked to doing a great job—and vice versa.” The likability factor is a mere add-on, but not a prerequisite, for making an impact.

How would you advise young women to start getting prepared for leadership positions?

Indira narrated her experience working with Martha as a vice-president of research at the University of British Columbia as a great informal learning opportunity. By observing Martha’s style of leadership, Indira imbibed many principles which she transferred to her tenure as president of the University of Alberta.

Indira summarized her advice with this: “If you have an opportunity to work with an outstanding leader, make notes.” 

Martha, in her response, provided a juxtaposition between mentors and sponsors. “While mentors offer you guidance and support you in your career, sponsors recommend you for opportunities and spread good word about your capabilities.” She noted that sponsors, although we may be unaware of who they are, are instrumental in moving up the ladder of leadership. How do we then catch the eye of these sponsors? She advised upcoming leaders to “keep doing your best, excelling in whatever you do, and be original.”

SFU President Joy Johnson noted that incumbent leaders have the responsibility to take note of young people with leadership potential and recommend them when an opportunity arises.

The authors noted that there was a gap in how much women uplifted and recommended other women for leadership opportunities when compared to their male counterparts. They both encouraged women to empower each other in this regard.

How should leaders act/respond in moments of crisis?

Indira and Martha agreed that in moments of crisis, leaders can feel alone and without any support. Indira recounted a time she had to make a decision against the general opinions of others, but she chose to follow her principles and what she knew to be right. In the midst of complications, she encourages everyone to honour their rightful, personal principles when making tough decisions and stick to them until the end of the crisis.

Martha also shared an experience during her time as president of UBC where she had to respond to comments made by a UBC community member. Her major take-away from that incident was to “take control of the situation before it’s out of your control.” She stressed the importance of taking action as soon as possible in order to pre-empt an alternate, incorrect narrative from surfacing. 

Have you experienced trauma through a series of microaggressions?

Martha Piper narrated a time where her safety and that of her family’s were under threat, but she got through the situation by having a solid support system she could rely on. “You need support structures outside of your institution. You need people that will believe in you whether you are right or wrong,” she stated. Indira also echoed the need for a support system as a leader.

Do you ever feel confined to narrow stereotypes as powerful women leaders?

Indira stated confidently that “as a woman of colour, I feel liberated and not confined as a leader.” She noted that women, unlike men, are not confined to as many standards or precedents to follow. Women leaders can choose to lead and set the bar for what leadership should look like. Martha indicated that confinement isn’t the issue—it is how female leaders choose to respond to pushback when they do things differently.