The Locus Of Control: Can A Decades-Old Theory Help Leaders Navigate Today's Crisis?

  • Ezra
  • September 15th, 2020

No one can fault you for feeling that life has spun a wee bit out of control.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ebb and flow, crippling economies and basic social interactions. At the same time, the world is undergoing a much-needed reckoning over systemic racism. And if that’s not enough, we have the slow but relentless advancement of climate change and all of its glacier-melting, wildfire-generating ferocity.


But is your life really out of control, or do you just feel that you have lost all control?

That may seem like a semantically challenged question, but in its own awkward way, it could be a key insight that helps you become healthier, happier and more productive.

The locus of control theory, simplified

More than 60 years ago, American psychologist Julian B. Rotter developed something he called the “locus of control,” or the degree to which we believe we are in control of our own destiny.

In an “external” locus of control. Rotter theorized that people believe luck and fate control the course of their lives. These are the people who believe they rarely succeed at anything because the odds or events are stacked against them and there is little they can do on their own to influence outcomes.

Rotter also described an internal locus for people who believe their actions can determine major outcomes. If these people fail at something, they review their actions and decisions and try to find a way of doing better.

Business leaders need to emphasize a strong internal locus of control

For business leaders, it’s obviously preferable to emphasize the internal side of Rotter’s spectrum of loci. A strong internal locus of control can be linked with self-awareness, a key characteristic of emotional intelligence which is currently believed to be a foundational mindset for good business leaders.

Why is this such an important issue for business leaders? Pre-COVID-19 research has shown that leaders who demonstrate a strong locus of control are more pragmatic, resilient and accountable than peers who may lean towards an external locus of control. They are also more open to change and trying new ideas than their more pessimistic colleagues.

There is also a very strong argument to be made that leaders who possess a strong internal locus are more likely to be healthier, both physically and mentally. Some have gone as far as to suggest that with strong faith in the power of individual action, they are also more likely to adopt pandemic measures like social distancing and the wearing of non-medical masks.

Can you build a strong internal locus of control, or do you have to be born with it?

Those who have studied Rotter’s theory believe that, over time, a strong locus of control can be cultivated, with some exceptions of course.

In many ways, the best of contemporary leadership development is tailor-made for amplifying an internal locus of control. Doing the hard work to build emotional intelligence and accountability will certainly go a long way to changing a leader’s mindset on any individual challenge.

Leadership development and mental health experts recommend a variety of approaches to build a stronger internal locus of control. There are those who believe in intensive self-reflection – including processes to list and review options – as a good place to start.

Others stress the need to become less risk-averse, and more willing to make decisions in a “fail-fast” context. Still others advise a period of reflection on any criticism, to turn it from a negative into an opportunity to grow and learn.

The most common advice, however, is to seek support, possibly through a leadership coach.

Even for those leaders who may have a strong internal locus of control, the burden of having to face concurrent, generational challenges is enough to crush even the most mature and resilient leaders. The stress and anxiety that comes with these challenges is very real, and no one should have to endure them on their own. That is where peers and coaches come in.

All of the qualities associated with a strong internal locus of control narrative are, thankfully, built into the approach used by most coaches who try to help leaders become more emotionally mature and self-reliant.

There is very little that individuals can do, on their own, to turn the tide of huge problems like global warming and a pandemic. However, individuals with a strong internal locus of control know that there are things they can do to help. And sometimes, that can be enough.

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