This paper draws on a multiple case study on school leadership in seven schools in South Africa. The views and experiences of principals of so called failing schools were elicited and analysed to try and answer the research question: Why could these schools not achieve more than a 20% pass rate in the National Examination for the last five years amongst their grade 12 pupils?
The most striking finding was that in all the cases one essential element of leadership was missing namely resilience: leading irrespective of the circumstances and changing problems into challenges. In their acceptance of a managerialist leadership style and curriculum changes that, amongst others, marginalised design/art education, school leaders surrendered to defeatism, a finding validated by interview data. This paper recommends suggestions which principals could use to turn defeatism into resilience in their professional lives.