You’ve Got a Lot of Nerve! A Discussion with Women Who Went First With Two University Presidents

Forging new territory is always hard. Forging it as a leader is even harder: your team, stakeholders, and critics are all watching you.

Now, imagine you are in new territory! For women entering the still-heavily male-dominated C-suite ranks, scrutiny and pressure are extra intense. Any stumble prompts mutterings of “What do you expect with a woman?”

Dr. Martha Piper, the first female president of the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Indira Samarasekera, the first female president and former vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta, share their experience on the podcast It Takes Nerve. This episode was produced in partnership with the International Leadership Association as part of their 25th Annual Global Conference held in October 2023. Dan Mushalko, ILI Executive Producer, shared this article as a companion to the podcast. 

Link to the entire interview:

Listen to the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future via Apple PodcastsTuneInSpotifyAmazon MusicAudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One.

You’ve Got a Lot of Nerve! (And That’s a Good Thing)

Our guests in this week’s podcast heard that kind of feedback. Martha Piper (University of British Columbia) and Indira Samarasekera (University of Alberta) learned to navigate such resistance and obstacles as the first female presidents of their respective universities. Those lessons can benefit all innovative leaders!

The Key:

It takes nerve, grit, and grace.

Nerve and Grit

These are two sides of the same coin, whose currency is determination. We all face obstacles, especially when we try to make an impact. When those setbacks happen, focusing even more sharply on your goal is important. It’s all too easy to be blinded by the emotions of the situation, but remembering the importance of your goal helps you see that your work is bigger than you. That can energize you to move forward. Staying on target despite disruptions, simple stumbles, or outright attacks is nerve in action. Your authenticity, courage, resilience, and personal experience all help fuel your innate grit. And the more you exercise your grit, the stronger it becomes.


There’s a myth that grit and grace are mutually exclusive – that graceful leadership is synonymous with weakness. That myth arose from outdated machismo in the executive gym. In reality, losing your temper is far easier than to muster the strength to maintain grace under fire. The ability to retain your internal balance: to express gratitude to your team, to see the opportunities in apparent failures, and to forgive; all these elements of grace create loyalty, authenticity, and true problem-solving. In short, grace makes your leadership stronger.

Upholding Principles

Here’s where utilizing your nerve and grit comes into play at each leadership level. When you’re in the spotlight, the temptation to cave under external pressures can be substantial. But truly effective leaders don’t lose sight of their values; that’s a significant factor in their long-term success. Hold on to your principles, filtering your decisions through that lens. Whether you bend to external pressure or not, you’ll face criticism and backlash – so you might as well stay true to your principles regardless. When your team sees this, it has the added benefit of boosting your authenticity and enhancing their trust.

Doctors Samarasekera and Piper delve into more detail in this week’s podcast, and add many examples from their own lives in their new book Nerve: Two Women Who Went First.


Thank you for reading Innovative Leadership Insights, where we bring you thought leaders and innovative ideas on leadership topics each week.


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Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future on your favorite podcast platform, including Apple PodcastsTuneInSpotifyAmazon MusicAudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One.

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