Could our ability to deal with failure be rooted in our culture?

By Sonia Yee, Senior Advisor – Communications and Media, IoD
16 Jan 2023
read time
2 min to read
Across the board banner with IoD’s CEO Kirsten Patterson and Sonia Yee

This final episode of the Institute of Directors seven-part podcast series, Across the Board presented by IoD’s CEO Kirsten Patterson and Sonia Yee looks at how we deal with success and failure and what that looks like for directors on boards and business leaders.

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” — Winston S. Churchill

Everything we do in life is hopefully setting us up on a path towards success. It’s the reason we go to school, play sports, or compete in a range of activities.

Human beings have been doing this for centuries - throw a man into a ring full of lions and tigers and see if he survives! Winning and succeeding at all costs, is the ultimate goal. At least, that is the way it has been pitched to us through social and cultural cues. Advertising and the media have also done their bit to cement that message that if we do this, or buy that, we will become the most perfect version of ourselves and live our best lives.

But when we encounter failure, it can hit us pretty hard. More difficult still, failing in the public sphere as the head or representative of a company can be incredibly raw, and ‘having the courage to continue’ may be about as likely as keeping a popsicle frozen in the desert sun.

Dr Smita Singh

Dr Smita Singh

Dr Smita Singh from the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) specialises in entrepreneurial failure. She says we need to look more closely at the words we use and the stories we tell ourselves in order to understand why we perceive failure so negatively in the first place.

“What are our earliest memories of feeling like a success or failure, and who made us feel that way? This is quite deep.”

The researcher says ingrained patterns of thinking and being too afraid to address failure honestly is one of the biggest obstacles in overcoming it.

“We are so quick to replace that word with something else that is more palatable.”

Through her research and data collected in New Zealand, she says there are signs of a deep stigma around failure. As a small country, there is an interconnectedness between communities across every single industry and sector. She says as a result, those in the business world worry about losing valuable networks.

“But where is the root of this worry coming from? Why is it that if a person has failed that we’re not willing to network or work with that person, or give [them] a second chance?” 

She says the sole responsibility for failure is often placed in the hands of the business owner or entrepreneur, without taking external factors into account if the venture has failed.

“We have to understand [failure] is going to hurt and lead to some negative consequences in our life. We are so afraid to appear weak,” says Dr Singh. 

Listen to the final episode of Across the Board for more from Dr Singh. You’ll also hear Dr Rod Carr who returns with a story about failing in his early career, Jonathan Forsey (Duncan Cotterill) discusses why the Mainzeal case went to the Supreme court and if that was due to a failure by the directors, Cameron McCulloch (IoD) shares why the ability to continue learning as a director is a sign of success, Emily Miller Sharma says having a board made the government listen to the fashion industry, and Steven Renata (Kiwa Digital) tells us why he needs to stop and smell the roses.

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Across the Board was produced by the Institute of Directors in partnership with NZME and iHeart Radio and proudly sponsored by ASB Bank.

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