Leading into the Future III: From the Pendulum to the Fire
Locus of Control
We perceive mysteries as taking place outside our sphere of control or influence. Psychologists call this an external locus of control and note that some people are inclined to view most issues as outside their control (that is, as mysteries). By contrast, puzzles are usually perceived as being under our control. Psychologists identify this perspective as an internal locus of control and note that some people are likely to view all issues as being under their control (that is, as puzzles).
Problems and dilemmas are usually complex mixtures of controllable and uncontrollable elements. To successfully address a problem or dilemma, one typically needs a balanced perspective with regard to internal and external loci of control—a critical distinction for leaders to draw. One of the most helpful inquiries when confronting problems, dilemmas and (in particular) nested dilemmas is to identify what is and what is not under one’s control. A problem or dilemma that is embedded in a rugged landscape is more likely to have components that are under at least our partial control than is a problem or dilemma that is embedded in a dancing landscape.
There are myriad challenges associated with the role of leader in addressing these different kinds of issues. First, we typically want their issues to be puzzles that we can control or perhaps mysteries for which we have no responsibility. Puzzles can be solved and we know when we have solved them. Mysteries are outside our control, so we don’t have to feel responsible for resolving them. But problems and dilemmas—these are much more difficult to address. We have to determine which aspects of the problem or dilemma are under our control and which aspects are not. This confusing mixture of internal and external control is inherent in problems and dilemmas, and so is the balancing of competing but valid interests represented by different stakeholders. That’s what makes them so difficult to address.