The Resilient Leader – A Major Misunderstanding?

von Karsten Drath

I am studying the topic of leader resilience since many years now. This time has shown me that it is times to put an end to some myths about this topic that linger on stubbornly. One of these myths is that resilient people take better care of themselves and thus expose themselves to less stress than others. 

Resilience is not about avoiding stress

However research shows that the opposite is true. Numerous studies suggest that resilient managers have developed and cultivated a different attitude towards stress and it therefore affects them less, even though, seen objectively, they certainly have to grapple with enormous tasks. However stress is caused when the pain regions in the brain are activated, since the brain does not differentiate between physical, social or emotional pain. In the case of people who have abundant resilience, the ‘reward centre’ of the brain will tend to be activated, rather than the pain structures, since they do not feel overwhelmed by difficult challenges, but instead get a ‘kick’ out of mastering them.

Resilience is not about being tough 

If I ask managers to give me examples of resilient people, it often becomes clear to me that resilience is easily mistaken for ‘toughness’, which is another misunderstanding. Resilience certainly has a lot to do with discipline, but also with self-awareness and reflection. Resilient managers do things because they see a reason in them and because it feels right. In my experience, toughness, on the other hand, has more often to do with a lack of reflection and a lack of self-awareness. Tough managers do things because they are convinced that they need to be done or that this is expected of them. There is a big difference between the two, which also has a significant impact on the long-term resilience of managers. 

Resilience is not a static part of our personality 

The few companies who have acknowledged how important resilience is in management for their long-term success, are now pragmatically starting to systematically choose candidates for leadership positions according to their level of resilience. Behind this lies the false assumption that resilience is a fixed part of an individual’s personality, as only this dimensions is analysed in such personality assessments. There is also another false assumption, namely that having more resilience is always better than having less.

Resilience is not just about seeing the glass half full 

Another myth is the assumption that resilient people are just optimists and that crisis-resistant companies are simply packed with optimistic people. This is not true either. Optimism, that is to say the belief that everything will turn out well, has even turned out to be a risk factor. The quality that really matters is rather the anticipation that problems will arise, and the conviction that one will be able to resolve them. So it often was not the cheerful people who saw the world through rose-tinted glasses who survived the concentration camps, but rather the die-hard realists. 

Resilience is not about being more ethical

Resilient people are not necessarily better people either, as another myth goes. The term should instead be regarded as neutral and refers only to the ability to deal constructively with and overcome difficult circumstances in life. The Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, Viktor Frankl identified the element of “meaning” as essential for the development of inner resilience in the face of adverse circumstances. Frankl lost almost his entire Jewish family in Hitler’s concentration camps and was himself held captive for three years at various concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Unlike many others, he survived. He makes no secret of the fact that idealists and philanthropists were often not the ones who survived the concentration camps. 

Resilience is about being relentlessly realistic

The same logic applies in companies too. Resilient managers are characterised by a very sober and relentlessly realistic appraisal of the factors that are critical for their own survival. This doesn’t mean that these managers do not have a vision or values, or that they can’t be inspired to motivate their team.  It would appear, however, especially in the case of bigger challenges such as turnarounds and restructuring that a sober, objective, perhaps almost pessimistic attitude has proven to be more likely to lead to success. 


Karsten Drath works with top managers and their teams to improve their leadership effectiveness and resilience. He is a certified Executive Coach and Psychotherapist, a published author and keynote speaker, and is one of the Managing Partners of Leadership Choices, an international consultancy focusing on leadership development at Top Management level. Looking back on more than 15 years of own leadership experience in several international roles he knows the challenges that come with the executive lifestyle and also how to cope with them.