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Posts & articles that have helped thousands build performance through pragmatic leadership.

What Obama & McCain can learn from W.I. Thomas

Author: S. B. Bacharach

Did you ever hear of W.I. Thomas (1863-1947)?  Maybe, if you took a sociological theory class.  If you haven’t, W. I. Thomas teaches us one of the most fundamental axioms in all social theory: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

This is one of those simple sociological principles that is obvious to everyone, but too often is forgotten.  How we define the world, and how the world is defined for us will have real consequences for our capacity to cope, take action, and move forward.

In a time of crisis, we turn to each other for reassurance, some definition of the situation.  In the last few weeks, many of us have turned to our co-workers, friends, and family for a common definition of the situation-with the hope that perhaps we can gain a little solace and peace of mind from a collective definition of what our world is about.

Leadership is often about the capacity to help people define and redefine the situation.  When FDR told the nation that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, he was engaging in this process of redefinition.

In last night’s debate, neither Barack Obama nor John McCain were able to begin the process of redefining the situation.  They both did not understand that they had a responsibility not simply to tout their agendas, but to crystallize a plan of action and make it clear that from Day One they would take specific proactive steps that would change the situation from one where the public feels they are passive victims to one where we all feel we are active partners in a solution.

Proactive leaders can redefine the situation not with platitudes and long-term plans, but with immediate, concrete steps that everyone can understand.  Had either of the candidates kept the words of W.I. Thomas in mind last night and redefined the situation as one of opportunity and specific challenges that could be immediately met, the public would have been much more reassured.



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