'Fear and failure are made up': Elaine Powell on breaking self-imposed barriers

Mon 14 Mar 2022

'Fear and failure are made up': Elaine Powell on breaking self-imposed barriers

The peak performance and communications expert discusses how women can progress in their careers with confidence, whatever the sector they are in

By Murielle Gonzalez

'Break the bias', the theme of this year's International Women's Day, is more than a call to action for moving the needle on gender equality — it is a message that puts the spotlight on understanding what gets in the way. Conscious and unconscious biases are assumptions made about women and preconceived ideas about what their goals and ambitions are. Female civil servants of all grades who have come to Women into Leadership conferences and the events in the Professional Women series are living proof that raising a family and holding a leadership role at work is no longer an either/or option.

While the challenge of closing the gender leadership gap remains in the mindset of those with the power to catalyse change, women still fall into the trap of the patriarchy model in which our society and organisations operate. Elaine Powell, peak performance and communications expert, looks back on her experience speaking at our events to shed light on the dos and don'ts for a new paradigm where equal opportunities are the norm.

"Women come to [Dods D&I] events, and the one thing I see they have in common is the drive to progress in their career," says Powell. She notes that female civil servants gather at these events because of a strong calling to create community, wanting to make a real difference to other people. However, Powell warns that, occasionally, what gets lost is the call for developing themselves.

Powell explains: "A lot of them are mothers and caregivers, so they're used to giving to other people. But sometimes they forget that they are the nucleus that holds their families together and if they are not strong mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, then other areas of their life aren't as strong." 

She argues that women must understand that is not selfish to take time for themselves. On the contrary, it is a duty to be connected to what's important for them.

What can women do to connect to themselves?

I always encourage women to focus on the result: what is it you want to achieve? Career progression in the civil service is not linear like the private sector, so whether your next step is going upwards, sideways, or staying where you are for the moment, you must find what resonates with you.

What is holding women back from leadership?

Fear is not real, yet it is one of the biggest things that holds people back — not just women. We all have families and other commitments, but women really need to be aware to not stop themselves out of fear.

I would say to them, be self-aware to self-correct. If you are not self-aware, you are just going through the motions, doing what you think is listening to your gut instinct. But what you are listening to is fear. Questions like 'can I do it?' or 'does this make sense for me? are rooted in doubts.

The gut instinct or intuition about where you need to go next is pure, not shrouded with doubts. If there is something you want, find a way to get it. If that means that you need to develop yourself a bit more and gain more experience, then do that.

Why fear is not real?

It is just made up. Somebody made up that a woman cannot progress or must look and carry in a certain way to be a leader. Fear is in the language, and when we come together in an agreement, we put things in force. For instance, laws are made up, and we came to an agreement on how you drive a car. Some of these agreements have been put on us, but we never agreed to them. Conflict happens because not everyone is in agreement.

We are born into a patriarchal society, and we are born into a system where women are second class, which is gradually dissipating. So, if you understand that concepts such as fear are made up, you can change the rules — and that's how people become high performers. High performers push past what other people say is possible.

Do you think women are more afraid of failure than men?

We are the same, but men are not as vocal about fear and failure as women. I see this clearly when I do public speaking workshops in schools. I could have 30 young students in a room, half are boys and half are girls. I would ask for five people to come to the front of the room, and nine times out of 10, the five people who stand up are boys.

Men are very action-oriented, which might be from back in the times of hunters and gatherers. Men could not be thinking, 'am I going to let this lion kill me?' They have always got to be in action. 

Women are more inside their heads, thinking: "is this possible? What if I get it wrong? What would that look like'. So, men work it out as they go along. Women try and work it out in advance.

How can women be action-oriented?

People who are successful in life decide to do something, commit to it, and go and make it happen. This attitude is the basis of the concept 'Decide, Commit, Resolve' from the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. 

But, unfortunately, most people, not just women, go about their life the other way around and place the decision last. This approach does not work because you cannot project the future. It also does not work because you either end up talking yourself out of what you want or lose the opportunity because time has passed and the opportunity is gone.

Does this mean that women must go against their nature to succeed?

The challenge with self-imposed barriers is that we must learn to trust that we can achieve whatever we need to succeed. We learn as we go about doing it.

There is no such thing as failure because there is always something that you learn from mistakes. Fear and failure are made up. My advice is to let go of perfectionism because we are always learning.

Elaine Powell will be speaking at Women into Leadership Birmingham on 17 March. The conference is sold out, but you can secure your place for the upcoming events.


Visit the dedicated event website for dates, locations and agenda:




Murielle Gonzalez, content strategy manager at Dods Diversity & Inclusion, is an experienced journalist and editor. She can be reached on murielle.gonzalez@dodsgroup.com.

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