Where There is Will

November 13, 2013 5 Comments

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

– Lao Tzu

Recently overheard:

“Yes, sure it’s great that that community is taking a network approach.  But we don’t have anything like the resources they have here.”

“No, I didn’t follow up on my commitments to the team.  I acknowledge that.  I’m just an “in the moment” kind of person.  When I’m with the team, I’m with them.  When I’m not, I’m not.”

“No, we haven’t met yet.  Someone should take responsibility for getting us organized.”

In the leadership programs that I am currently helping to facilitate, we are working with a couple of core frameworks to guide participant learning and development.  The first looks at what we call different “levels of work” that are part of the developmental process.  They are the levels of individual, group/team, and larger (social) system.  The first level asks us to consider how and what we bring, with respect to our individual selves, to the work of social change.  The second looks at the collective capacities that are part of a given group, team, or cohort.  The third level pertains to the next larger system of relevance, to which the group or team contributes value. Consideration at this level is given to what is necessary to create greater health and wholeness for that system. The idea here is that development proceeds along all of these lines simultaneously, and we are called to shift our attention strategically and consider how the current state and/or change at one level impacts the others.

At the individual level, another framework we use looks at three key elements of leadership development: skill, attitude, and will.  Skill is know-how, tools in our toolkit, process expertise.  Attitude is how we come to the work – for example: with an orientation towards helping others to develop, looking for potential in others, with a desire to learn,  emphasizing mutuality, etc.  There is a dynamic interplay between these essential elements.  As we like to say, a good attitude without skillfulness will not get you far; skillfulness is directed by attitude; and will is often the difference maker.  Will is the drive that comes from passion and being on purpose.  It doesn’t wait for others to go first (see quotes above) or shy from that sense of being out on a limb by one’s self.  It doesn’t aim to please. And it keeps going when the going gets tough.

Part of will, I believe, is rooted in a strong internal “locus of control.” The locus of control describes the degree to which individuals see outcomes resulting from their own behaviors, or from forces that are external to themselves. Believing that they have responsibility and possibility for determining success, people with a strong internal locus of control are more likely to take initiative to try and improve situations, engage in self-development, and try to figure out how to turn “failure” into learning.  Of course, this can be taken too far.  Too strong of an internal locus of control, or one unmediated by an attitude of shared responsibility or by any kind of systemic analysis, can result in trying to control everything and everyone, or not accounting for the role of complex structures in determining outcomes.  So like with so many things in life, it is a balancing act, cultivating a deep sense of driven purpose while maintaining an awareness of the larger picture and others.  Tips for creating a stronger internal locus of control include:

  • Recognize you always have a choice, and that not making a choice is in fact a choice.
  • Set goals and as you reach them, note your accomplishment and sense of agency.
  • Pay attention to your thoughts and self-talk.

If you are interested in exploring this further, you can check out this link where there is an interactive survey to learn more about your own locus of control and how to develop it.  And please share your thoughts about the role of will in social change work, and how to ensure it does not go astray.


  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Curtis, especially for the caveat about the excesses that ignore structural barriers. I am a big fan of locus of control as a concept with that big caveat. I took a peek at the interactive survey and found myself wanting to “yeah but” most of the questions. None of them really makes space to acknowledge the complexity that one could work really hard, expect to have that benefit them, and still be held back, without having an unduly external locus of control.

  • GibranX says:

    This is extremely helpful, and I too am big on the both/and. Structural oppression digs into the psyche and tends to overly determine how we conceive of our agency.

    At the same time, I do see a tendency to swing too far in the other direction, with the helper, activist or intervener actually nurturing a victim mindset that only serves to reinforce the roll of structure.

    In my boldest moments I seek to connect to those who have an internal locus of control even as they face oppression. It is a space that smells a lot like freedom.

  • MistinguetteS says:

    This is a good article, and I have some folks I’m sharing it with. I particularly appreciate the discussion about how “structural oppression digs into the psyche”, which can undermine Will even in groups with strong Skill and Attitude. In some social movements, separatist spaces – spaces for women only, for people of color only, for Deaf people only — were designed to as places to safely exercise and strengthen individual and group sense of agency, without the constant enforcement of the structural oppression of sexism, racism or ableism. Your article led me to reflect on cultivating will as more than a personal solution; it’s a political act that is most effectively done in community.

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Interesting that you make this point, Mistinguette. I was just with a couple of groups this past week where the notion of “collective will” was up along with the question, how do we help our community understand its untapped potential?

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