Things We’ve Learned About Leadership

You don't have to be at the top to lead, say former U of A and UBC presidents

By Lisa Szabo, ’16 BA

Photo by Taehoon Kim

You don't have to be at the top to lead, say former U of A and UBC presidents

By Lisa Szabo, ’16 BA

October 08, 2021 •

“It takes more than talent. It takes a kind of nerve... a kind of nerve and a lot of hard, hard work.”

These words, attributed to the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, have hung above the desk of Martha Piper, ’06 LLD (Honorary), since she was the vice-president of research at the University of Alberta in the early 1990s. Nearly 30 years later, the phrase is the backbone of Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went First (ECW Press, 2021), which Piper co-authored with former U of A president and vice-chancellor Indira Samarasekera, ’16 DSc (Honorary).

Piper and Samarasekera are no strangers to talent, hard work or nerve. Both women have held vice-presidencies in research at two of Canada’s leading post-secondary institutions (Samarasekera at UBC), and they have 25 honorary degrees between them. Most notably, both are the only female presidents to have served at their respective universities: Samarasekera at the U of A from 2005 to 2015 and Piper at UBC from 1997 to 2006. 

Here they share some of what they've learned about leadership during their careers at the helm.

Be willing to shake things up 

All great leaders have something in common. It’s not jaw-dropping oration or lots of followers on social media. And it’s not solely ability, either. Leaders have to be willing to take risks, to push back against the status quo. In other words, they have to have nerve. “You don’t have to be talented to really succeed,” Piper says. “But you have to be prepared to push the envelope, to do something risky.” Great leaders don’t just pick up where the last person left off. They have the courage and willingness to disrupt the status quo in order to make things better. 

Take stock of your abilities

When someone singles you out as a great leader, do you believe them? For many people — women in particular, they write in the book — the answer is a resounding “no.” To combat insecurity, Piper and Samarasekera recommend reflecting on your experiences. “Taking stock is about looking at major events in your life and assessing them for how they may have demanded certain qualities of you,” Samarasekera says. Chances are you’ve handled challenging situations or opportunities to show leadership better than you thought. In taking stock of her childhood, her university years and her career, Piper says, “I began to realize that even though I hadn’t aspired to lead, I had led.” 

There’s no such thing as ‘balance’

Women in leadership — and working women in general — struggle with the notion of balance: that evasive equilibrium where work, family and personal activities meet in perfect proportion. “There is no such thing,” says Samarasekera, who prefers the metaphor of juggling. The balls you decide to keep in the air may change from day to day depending on your priorities. “You have to make choices,” says Piper. “Am I going to get up early and take a phone call at 5 a.m.? Am I going to get to the gym?” Instead of trying to have it all — a notion Piper suspects hurts women — she advises learning to prioritize, delegate and enlist the help of others by handing over some of the balls you can’t catch. 

Failure is always hard

No matter how many times you hear some version of “failure is the stepping stone to success,” failure is tough, especially for a leader whose mistakes are under the scrutiny of dozens or hundreds or thousands of people. With her decades of leadership, Piper says she’s still learning. “I’m still trying to deal with not taking it personally, to step back and recognize that failure is part of success,” she says. While the fear of failing may linger, she says not to let it stall you. “If you don’t fail, you’re not going to move the needle.” 

Lean into serendipity

Leaders seek out opportunities rather than waiting for them to fall into their laps. However, part of leadership is being open to unexpected opportunities and finding the nerve to take them on. “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,” says Samarasekera. Aim to become what the pair call a “super-encounterer,” someone who keeps their eyes peeled for happy surprises and isn’t afraid to go off book when an opportunity presents itself. “When you look back at those moments,” she says, “you often wonder how many things did you miss because you weren’t open to the happy chance?” 

Know when to walk away

One of the most difficult decisions a leader will make is knowing when to leave a position, write Piper and Samarasekera in their book. No single answer is right for everyone. “It’s a very personal decision,” Piper says. To help you decide when to move on, she recommends re-evaluating your attitude about the role. “When you feel repetitive and you feel jaded, you start being sarcastic about things, you know that you’ve got to move on,” says Piper. And not just for your own benefit. “The organization that you care so much about deserves energy, deserves excitement and deserves new leadership.” 

Leadership goes beyond the boardroom

Not everyone will end up as a CEO, company director or university president. Not everyone wants to. But both Piper and Samarasekera believe that all people lead through their actions, whether you’re a stay-at-home parent, part of a church or synagogue, or you’re a volunteer. “Leadership has all sorts of pieces,” Piper says. “As my mother said, you don’t have to be the kid in the front of the class waving her hands.” There’s an opportunity for leadership in almost every aspect of life. Anytime you have to decide about something or interact with someone, you can be a leader. “You’d have to be really isolated, living on an island by yourself, not to have the opportunities to lead and to make a difference,” Piper says.

Pay it forward

Both Piper and Samarasekera have had “sponsors” throughout their careers and recognize what an integral role they played. Unlike a mentor, whom you seek out for leadership advice, a sponsor finds you. “They are behind the scenes. They’re telling people about you. They’re pushing you, without you knowing that they’re pushing you,” says Piper. A sponsor recognizes your leadership abilities and advocates on your behalf, often without you knowing about it. “And we need to sponsor people who we see the spark in, who we think can succeed,” says Piper. “How do you get a sponsor? You just excel at what you’re doing.”

Hear more lessons on leadership from Samarasekera and Piper in an On Demand webinar.

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