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The Gritty Leader

| March 3, 2020

by Sarah Buszka

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Sarah J. Buszka, Critical Infrastructure Service Lead, University of Wisconsin – Madison.  She is a current participant in the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) MOR Leaders Program.  Sarah may be reached at [email protected].]

In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth successfully proves that effort is a more reliable and robust predictor of success than talent. Her theory is summarized with the following two equations:

Talent x effort = skill

Skill x effort = achievement 

This theory states that talent (defined as how quickly we improve in skill) matters for building achievement, but effort counts twice.1

In a society where we glamorize “natural talent” and “genius,” this theory feels mundane. It’s incredibly ordinary. It also poses a threat to our psyche and the perception of our own self-worth. As Nietzsche said, “our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking… to call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.’”

The danger in equating talent and achievement is that we remove effort from the equation entirely. We deny ourselves the opportunity to practice grit and instead allow ourselves to relax into the status quo. 

The ever-changing landscape is something we can count on in higher education, especially in technology. This green pasture is filled with many exciting opportunities, and also with inevitable lurking setbacks. Gritty leadership is necessary now more than ever to successfully navigate our teams, services, and institutions through the upcoming challenges we all will face.2

What exactly is gritty leadership, and how will it help us achieve success?

As a part of the MOR Leaders Program, we are all required to share events/experiences in our lives that have taught us lessons in leadership. When I shared my leadership journey with the cohort, I was incredibly nervous. I hadn’t admitted some of my failures publicly before, such as getting fired from a job in college. It felt like the shame might crush me if I spoke it into being.

Reflecting on that setback, I realized that if I had not gotten fired from that job, I may never have found my calling in IT. I felt a rush of gratitude that filled the entire space of my body. I survived that setback. I even thrived because of it. Why? I never gave up. I found purpose in desolation; gratitude in defeat. For this was an opportunity to reflect, reframe, and learn from my mistake; to get back up.

As leaders, we inevitably will face many setbacks in our careers (and in our lives). As you’re reading this, you might be thinking of a setback that you may have even faced today. If you’re like me, when you experience these setbacks you might immediately question what you did wrong, if you’re capable enough to handle it or even feel paralyzed with how to respond to it. Spinning down the rabbit hole of doubt, fear, and shame can feel inevitable…

But it is not.

You have the power of choice. Just as easy as it feels to choose fear, doubt, or shame, it is possible to choose their opposites. You have the power to reframe the experience.

Gritty leadership is about two principles: 

  • Never giving up (effort).
  • Reframing negative experiences (skill). 

As Charles Duhigg describes in his book, The Power of Habit, habits are malleable and controllable. Recognize that your response to a negative stimulus is a learned habit. And that habit can be changed. As we learned from the Buccaneers head coach, Tony Dungy, changing a habit begins with understanding what the basic components of a habit are: a cue, routine, and reward; then attacking the routine while keeping the cue and the reward the same.3

My fellow colleagues, I invite you to try an experiment (outlined below in the table) with me on building your habit of grit. 





Consider the content we’ve learned in the MOR program (workbook, articles, videos, The Power of Habit) and Angela Duckworth’s grit equations that I’ve presented.

Identify (cue)

Day 1

Identify a setback you have recently experienced (at work or outside of work) and write it down in 3-5 sentences.

Identify (cue)

Identify the emotions you’re feeling about this experience and write 3-5 of them down. 


Allow yourself to sit with these emotions for a while and reflect on them. Resist the urge to ignore or block them out (this step is painful, yet critical to reframing). 


Ask yourself: “Can this too be explored?”

Reflect (routine)

Day 2

Schedule 30 minutes – 1 hour with yourself and ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What doors might open for you (or others) in this scenario? 
  • What information might I be missing? 
  • What can I learn from this experience? 
  • What can I teach others about this experience?

Reflect (routine)

Day 3

Schedule 30 minutes – 1 hour with yourself and ask the following questions:

  • What am I grateful for from this experience? 
  • What will I choose to feel about it?

Reframe (reward)

For those who like extra credit, I challenge you to practice this routine each time you experience a setback (real or perceived) for one month. Then challenge yourself to see how long you can keep it up.

The future of our organizations is in our hands. We know we’ll face adversity along our journey. Whether you’re working toward improving the student experience, simplifying our infrastructure and/or administrative systems, implementing information security and privacy strategies across the enterprise, developing policy, managing a help desk, streamlining funding models, or any other crucial work occurring daily; we’re continuously shaping our institutions. I’m excited for the plethora of grit-building opportunities that are on our horizon and how we’ll choose to experience them together. 

– Sarah


1. Duckworth, A. (2018). Grit: the power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner.
2. Grajek, S. (2020). Top 10 IT Issues, 2020: The Drive to Digital Transformation Begins. Educause Review.
3. Duhigg, C. (2014). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Toronto: Anchor Canada.