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As a leader, are you in control?


When things go wrong, do you think that it is fate, luck, the system – or is failure, and success, all down to you? Bob Selden looks at how we think about who is ‘in charge’ – our Locus of Control - also affects the way that we lead.

When the going gets tough, we can either say “Well, that’s life, I can’t do much about it”. Or, we can say “Things are tough, but I can win through”. It all depends on how we view the world. 
Some years ago, I read a report by Spiro Zavos in the sports pages of my local newspaper, which described the behaviour of a football coach during a very tense finals game. The antics of the losing coach gave a very good insight into why his team did not win and in fact lose many close games. In part, Zavos’ report read: “He was at his over-emotional worst at Lancaster Park on Sunday. The eyes rolled more wildly than ever, he stalked the sideline. Not even the television cameras were safe from his flaying arms. His antics sent a damaging message to his team: that the fates are conspiring against them and they are, somehow, destined to lose. And for the second week in a row they lost a critical game.” The winning coach on the other hand “ … sat impassively in the stands. The sign he gave to his players with this emotionless posture was that if the players wanted to win, they had to do it themselves. And they did. Just.”
“Individuals high on the internal locus of control assume that any success they experience is due to their personal efforts and that they have the ability to influence events.”
Both these coaches were very experienced and knowledgeable about the game. Both had got their teams to the finals. But why did one coach’s team always lose the close games and the other always win?
As the environment around you changes, you can either attribute success and failure to things you have control over, or to forces outside your influence. Which orientation you choose has a bearing on your long-term success as a leader.
Successful leaders typically display a high internal locus of control. In many studies, those with a high internal locus of control are shown as more likely to experience success than individuals who are high on the external locus of control. When someone perceives events as under the control of others - fate, luck, the system, their boss, etc - they have an external locus of control. Individuals high on the internal locus of control have a different assumption about how the world works. They assume that any success they experience is due to their personal efforts and that they have the ability to influence events. Interestingly, internals also assume failure was their fault.
Downsides for internals?
It would seem that having an internal locus of control, is the ideal characteristic for an effective leader. 
However, there are some downsides for 'internals'. People with a strong internal locus of control tend to be very achievement-oriented. This can leave people around them feeling trampled or bruised. And with a very strong internal locus of control, there is also a tendency to want to control everything - this can lead to difficulties in taking direction from others.
So, if you have a strong internal locus of control, make sure you pay attention to the feelings of people around you - otherwise you'll seem arrogant and people may not want to work with you. Also, make sure that you manage risks properly. Random events do occur for all sorts of reasons. While you can manage many of these with enough determination and hard work, some you just can't!
How can you identify when you or others tend toward more of an internal than external locus of control? (Note: some writers suggest that whilst we are definitely oriented toward one or the other, we also tend at times to move along a continuum between the two, depending on our moods).

People with an Internal Locus of Control tend to:
People with an External Locus of Control tend to:
Set high, but achievable personal goals.
Rely on others to set direction and/or set goals that are more general and less measurable.
Take responsibility for personal success and failure.
Blame others or the environment for failure. More likely see success as luck or good fortune.
Use personal pronouns such as “I” or “We” when attributing success or failure.
Use pronouns such as “it”, “them” and “they* more, particularly when attributing blame.
Use positive language that describes what should happen, e.g. “Hold on tightly”.
Use language that describes negative consequences, particularly the word “Don’t”, e.g. “Don’t drop it”.
Are inquisitive, particularly in trying to figure out “why something happened the way it did”.
Are less likely to learn from mistakes and successes so that they can improve in the future.

What does this mean for leadership development?
Whether you are a leadership coach, trainer or perhaps mentoring someone for leadership development, here are some suggestions that may prove useful.
  • Help people develop and set meaningful goals that are difficult, yet achievable. As people work towards these and start to achieve them, they also start to control what happens in their life, rather than leaving it to chance. As this happens, their self-confidence also quickly builds. Particularly useful in this phase is having them develop a career or life-planning workbook where they can describe and monitor their goals.
  • Help people develop their decision-making and problem-solving skills. Use decision making models that provide structure to assist the more externally focused feel more confident and in control of what happens. These tools can be particularly useful to help people understand and navigate through situations that may otherwise confuse, or at worst, damage them
  • Help people identify and pay attention to their self-talk. When they hear themselves saying things like, "I have no choice" or "There's nothing I can do", provide tips that enable them to step back and remind themselves that they do have choices – they always have some degree of control. It's their choice whether they exercise it or not
  • In addition to their self-talk, encourage people to use more positive language. For example, coach them on dropping the word “Don’t” entirely from their vocabulary (this may seem a very simple task, yet it personally took me about 12 months to finally get it out of my vocabulary). Also, provide exercises in using “I” and “We” rather than “them”, “they” or “it”
  • Build into all your development sessions, a means (a model or process is good) of reflecting on what has just happened. Ensure they have a process for using this on a daily basis for major events that occur in their life.
Of course, you may also be working with people who are already highly internally focused. With these people, the need is to ensure that they allow others to take control from time to time; they constantly work on understanding how other people are feeling and that it’s sometimes OK to feel a bit demotivated because one can’t control all environmental events.
Locus of Control is an important concept to understand if we want to maximize our own potential and that of others.
People with an Internal Locus of Control tend to work harder and persevere longer in order to get what they want. This is not to say that having an External Locus of Control is always bad. There are some situations where this approach can work well. However, the key for leadership development is to understand one’s natural tendency and then adapt it to the current situation. Locus of Control is no panacea. But it's a great way to help become more conscious and purposeful of what leaders do, say, and believe - all keys to effective self-management and successful leadership.
Bob Selden is the author of 'What To Do When You Become The Boss' – a self help book for new managers. He also coaches at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and the Australian Graduate School of Management, Sydney. You can contact Bob via
To read our Spotlight on Bob, click here.

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