The Value of Being the Underdog

Last Updated May 23, 2011 9:21 AM EDT

You might not think that a guy who has three won Super Bowl rings, is movie star handsome, is married to a supermodel, and has a guaranteed eight-figure contract would know much about what is it like to be an underdog. But you would be wrong.

Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots, won the NFL's MVP award last season but, as revealed in ESPN's The Brady 6, no one ever handed him anything on the football field. He was selected as the seventh quarterback (199th overall) in the NFL 2000 draft. His rating by the scouting combine was marked by such considerations that he was slow, did not have a good arm, and was physically underdeveloped by NFL standards.

What makes Brady, and so many executives I have worked with, excel and reach the top of their profession is their bedrock belief in themselves. They have been overlooked as well as knocked down but they get up again and as a result, they develop a strong sense of self-confidence that is rooted in a key trait for success: resilience.

Where does resilience come from?

The easy answer is "from within." Consider it a a defense mechanism that is switched to offense when adversity strikes. For example, a resilient person will respond to a defeat by saying, "Others may not believe in me, but I believe in myself and let me show you want I can do." A non-resilient individual just gives up.

As such resilience is a necessary trait in leadership, especially as businesses seek leaders who know what it takes to get knocked down but have the wherewithal to get up and try again. Such a trait is necessary when you are looking for someone to hire or promote an employee.

Here are four characteristics to consider:

Resolve. Another word for it might be perseverance. This is the quality that will not allow you to give up, especially when there are roadblocks. Resolve is that inside drive that looks for ways around obstacles but also the doggedness to keep on trying.

Authenticity. People want leaders who are the "real deal." There is so much phoniness in our celebrity culture that employees become hyper sensitive to those managers who play the "me-first" game. First to take credit and first to assign blame. Rather people today look for those willing to be accountable even when bad things happen.

Perspective. There is no shame in getting knocked down. What matters is the ability to stand up again. Sometimes adversity so rattles a person that it undermines confidence to a degree that they lose perspective. There is nothing wrong with being disappointed but when it turns into defeatism, that's a problem. Resilient leaders take the long view and never get too when they fail or too high when they succeed, they maintain perspective.

Confidence. People develop a sense of confidence through their accomplishments. Too much confidence is hubris and turns others off. Too little confidence also turns people away because no one wants to follow someone who does not believe in himself.


Organizations looking for those who will lead them in the future need to consider how a leader reacts to adversity. If he or she buckles, then pressure of command is not for them. But if they embrace it and see it as a challenge and want to bring others along with them then they have heart, the desire to improve and to help others do the same.

Resilience is an attribute that every leader needs to have, whether they throw passes for a living or balance the books. Do you and your colleagues have it? Would you recognize it if they did?