Karma versus Control and the Element of Choice

Private thoughts are powerful. Contrast “Things are outside of my control, and “Life is a game of chance,” with “If you work hard you will achieve your goals,” and Edison’s quote “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Personal agency, often referred to as locus of control (LOC), is an important leadership concept. I offer herein my reflections on the power of choice in shaping the extent to which we maximize the outcomes we achieve in life. Even if one’s present thought patterns are fatalistic, I argue that people can change their LOC if they wish.

Julian Rotter proposed the construct of LOC in 1954. Still influential and studied in most leadership courses today, LOC refers to the source(s) to which one attributes outcomes. Those with an external LOC believe what happens to them is caused by external stimuli, albeit another person’s actions, fate, chance, or events. Those at the other end of the continuum, with an internal LOC, believe their own actions cause their circumstances. Feeling in control of one’s destiny is empowering and positive. Feeling unable to influence what happens is disconfirming. Even when achieving something great, a person with an external LOC may believe the triumph was lucky, thereby missing the connection between behavior and results and perpetuating a negative thought cycle. Most managers find supervising an employee who does not take responsibility for her or his mistakes frustrating.

An internal LOC is preferred in leadership. Those with an internal LOC tend to be proactive, goal-oriented, hardworking, introspective, and employ a participative management style. There are some downsides, however. Some can be driven and task-oriented to a fault (e.g., Type As). Their achievement-orientation, when taken to an extreme, may leave others feeling dominated and controlled. Those to whom they report may perceive they do not take direction well (MindTools.com).

Many in leadership classes or training programs debate the question “Are leaders born or made.” Although some leaders are charismatics and their charm reinforced through social interaction, I would not teach leadership if I believed one’s potential stopped at birth. Ernst & Young identify successful entrepreneurial leaders who developed skills throughout their careers, and many other examples are available on the web. I wonder if believing that good leaders are born reflects an external LOC because the assumption suggests destiny is something over which one has no control.

Most of us know intuitively where we fit on the LOC continuum. Most of us are not purely oriented at one end of the spectrum. If interested in taking one of many assessments available on the web, click here: Locus of Control Questionnaire.

Like leadership skills, one’s LOC is shaped through life experiences. One can move away from an external LOC with effort. Some tips shared by MindTools.com to develop an internal LOC are as follows:

Recognize the basic fact that you always have a choice. Making no choice is actually a choice in and of itself, and it’s your choice to allow other people or events decide for you.

Set goals for yourself, and note how, by working towards and achieving these, you are controlling what happens in your life. As you do this, you’ll find that your self-confidence  quickly builds.

Develop your decision-making and problem-solving skills so that you can feel more confident, and in control of what happens. With these tools, you’ll find that you can understand and navigate through situations that would otherwise damage you.

Pay no attention to self talk. When you hear yourself saying things like, “I have no choice,” or There’s nothing I can do,” step back and remind yourself that you do, in fact, have some degree of control. It’s your choice whether you exercise it or not.

The very act of implementing a plan to alter one’s LOC suggests the change happened already. Mindful practice should reinforce this orientation. Those with an internal LOC are more apt to examine their failures and successes with an eagerness to learn from them. They are just as quick to take blame and criticism (the subject of an upcoming blog post) as they are to accept and share accolades with those who help them prosper. Management is defined as getting things done through other people. One person cannot perform all the work of an organization. Such an unrealistic attribution could suggest an external LOC.

The leaders I interviewed for my book Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training project an internal LOC. The optimism expressed in the following quote is encouraging to anyone interested in changing.

If you don’t try you’re never going to succeed. You know it is okay to fail but it is not okay to give up. And that if you give up then you know, then you give up. But you can always — You can fail and you can pick yourself up and try again. And I think that’s probably one of the big things that I would take away and I would say to other people, “It is okay that you can’t do this today.” But you can sit here and you can cry and you can whine about it and say that you can’t do this and you can’t do this. And you can say you can’t do this, and the minute you say you can’t, you’re right; you can’t. And so maybe you can’t do it today, or you weren’t successful today in doing something but you can come back tomorrow and you can try again and you may be successful that day and you may not. And then you may be successful one day and the very next day be not successful at doing something. I think it’s not giving up and not giving up on yourself; that you keep coming back and you keep trying. You keep putting forth the effort and if you do, eventually you’re going to succeed and you’re going to be successful in no matter what it is.

The empowered perspective shared above inspires me to monitor my thoughts so that I extinguish negative thought patterns that limit my growth. It is better to fail than do nothing, especially because a person with an internal LOC will review root causes and learn valuable lessons from mistakes. So many limits are self-imposed. Thoughts are powerful, and we can choose to take control of our actions. We always have choices.


Rotter, J. B. (1954). Social learning theory and clinical psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

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