What Makes A Great Leader: Locus of Control

What makes a great leader? Great leaders are admired and remembered. Civilizations have written stories and erected statues in their honor. You can find thousands of reasons why someone is a great leader but ultimately it boils down to how well an individual leads themselves. Undoubtedly millions of pages have been written throughout history, by people attempting to diagnose not only the characteristics of a great leader but also to describe and articulate the leader’s internal thought processes and spirit. As part of a special blog series, we will explore some of the elements of this self-leadership or self-mastery – how a great leader’s mind works, logically, emotionally, and spiritually (also called the seeds of influence). The first element of a great leader that will be reviewed is Locus of Control.

Individuals who believe that their destiny is in their own hands and that most of their actions directly impact their future are generally happier and more successful than their counterparts. This ability is defined as an internal locus of control and the converse known as an external locus of control. Those with a dominantly internal locus of control can be classified as “internals” and those with a dominantly external locus of control as “externals”. Individuals may be classified along this continuum depending on their locus of control, as depicted below.

The spectrum of locus of control
Source: MindTools.com  

Where internals believe their hard work, decisions, and plans determine their future, externals believe that outside forces such as luck, chance, or fate determine the future or outcomes and that the result is independent of their actions.

Why is this important for Leaders?

Knowledge of the intricacies of locus of control and how it affects behavior is a key part of effective leadership. Traditionally, successful leaders are thought to have a greater internal locus of control and less successful leaders with a lower internal locus of control. Despite this belief and the conclusion that an internal locus of control is associated with greater happiness or success in individuals, some studies offer different views where higher levels of success are displayed in individuals with a strong external locus of control.

Additionally, unhappiness has been reported in individuals with a strong internal locus of control and it is therefore suggested that a balanced combination of internal and external locus of control results in optimal levels of happiness. This is also described as a move towards a collaborative and altruistic leadership style and away from traditional narcissistic or dictatorial styles.

What Increases Your Locus of Control?


Successful people believe that they are doing what they choose to do because they choose to do it. Self-determination is a key characteristic of successful people, as this severely restricts the impact of outside forces on the individual’s goals. Self-determination also creates intrinsic motivation which is the strongest form of motivation and is more likely to result in continued success.

A simple example of self-determination is exercise. Regular strenuous exercise requires discipline and as it consumes your time and can be painful at times. It is observably much easier to sit on the couch and mindlessly watch series on Netflix. However, the changes to your body, overall fitness, health, and other physical improvements as a direct consequence of your self-determination are a product of a strong internal locus and can create a positive cycle of reinforcement. These are also important components of self-care.

Self-determination may lead to joy, part of a internal locus of control


Often self-determination alone is not enough to achieve success, there must also be an accompanying belief that success is possible. By thinking positively and believing that your goals may be achieved through your actions, your internal locus of control will improve. However, a word of caution pertaining to the combination of self-determination and optimism. It can result in “superstitious behavior’’ where correlation and causality may be confused, resulting in difficulty changing dysfunctional behavior such as arrogance and narcissism.

Other enablers that may increase your internal locus of control include self-confidence, positive reinforcements, self-evaluation, and motivation.

What Decreases Your Locus of Control?

Belief in Fate

Believing in fate or destiny essentially means that an individual believes that all choices are predetermined and that a future has already been decided for them. It is an attitude often summarized by the phrases “It is meant to be”, or “Everything happens for a reason”. Whilst some people may find fulfillment that a cosmic force in the form of religion, supernatural believes, star signs, or otherwise determine their future, others may find it disempowering or even disheartening that no matter what they do, they cannot escape the inevitable. This disarmament of choice and free will in the mind of the individual builds an extremely strong external locus of control.

Religion and supernatural beliefs do not necessarily indicate an external or internal orientation, and adults may move towards an internal locus of control as their perceptions mature, and their agency increases. Furthermore, the perspectives of the parents and their role in introducing religion into the lives of their children have a greater impact on their children’s orientation than religion itself.

Another important factor is the ability to separate your belief in destiny or fate from religion. As we age we might realize that we are able to decide our own future through our own decisions and our outcomes are not predetermined by supernatural forces. This may be realized through the understanding that multiple “predetermined” outcomes are possible under the belief structure, putting more emphasis on individual choice than previously thought possible.

Hopeless is a dead end and part of a external locus of control


There is good support in academic literature for the link between hopelessness and a high external locus of control and perpetuating cycles that may develop. People with this are burdened with a sense of hopelessness may suffer from depression, emotional withdrawal, and stress-related health issues. Burnout also comes into play due to sheer exhaustion and perpetual stress. Developing an internal locus of control is a means of eliminating these negative aspects, together with support from friends, family, and professionals.

Other stumbling blocks that may include low self-esteem, lack of motivation, powerlessness, and dependency.


A strong internal locus of control is necessary for the mind of a great leader. These leaders are able to guide themselves towards their dreams and goals with the belief that their hard work and determination will lead them to the future they desire. However, we also know that an internal orientation must be balanced with a sense of mindfulness, self-reflection, and grounding in the leader to prevent the creation of a narcissist, often thought of as the worst kind of leader.

How Can I Determine My Locus of Control?

Fortunately, there are several online tests available that can tell you where you lie on the spectrum. I recommend either mindtools.com or the original test developed by Julian Rotter in 1966.

Description of internal vs. external locus of control
Source: kgrierson.com


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