Stephen Covey: Master thinker, master storyteller

Stephen Covey: Master thinker, master storyteller

One of the first self-help books I ever bought was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, with the earnings from one of my first jobs.

The lure of that irresistible title jumped out at me from the bookshop window, and before I knew it I had whipped into the shop and was parting with hard-earned money to get my copy! Though I didn’t know it then, the book was to be both life-affirming and life-changing.

As we mourn the passing of Stephen Covey (October 24, 1932–July 16, 2012) it is interesting to share with so many other leaders how they too have been profoundly impacted by Covey’s seminal work.

It’s testimony to the power of his ideas, which have become so mainstream and such a part of who we are that it is hard to imagine how original and insightful his thinking was back in 1989.

Stuff like ‘Begin with the end in mind’ might make us think ‘Doesn’t everyone do that?’ Possibly lots of people do begin with the end in mind but Covey was the first to articulate this, and so elegantly, and for that alone we owe him a debt of gratitude. Also, my addiction to models and quadrants must be squarely placed at his feet! Covey never set out to write a management book or a leadership book, but again, the power of his ideas translates well into both these spheres.

What makes Covey immensely readable was his use of stories and parables, to make a point. When he was talking about ‘Paradigm shift’, he explained what that meant through this story. Once when he was travelling on the subway, a man gets in with his two sons. The sons are running all over the place bothering people. This continues, so Covey finally gets irritated enough to ask the father why he doesn’t do something to control his kids. The father replies, “We just got back from the hospital where their mother died. I don’t know how to handle it and I guess they don’t either.”

Suddenly everything you thought about the father and the kids running amok in that instant changes. You understand the family in a completely different way. That is the power of a paradigm shift. When I was reading Covey I wasn’t even sure how to say paradigm (now we all slip into those words like an old pair of comfy pyjamas!) But then the story really helped me understand what a paradigm shift meant and the story has stayed with me, and I continue to use it.

Covey’s ideas endure, where most other management buzzwords have been reduced to dust or a mockery of their old selves. A client recently told us that all that is left of the old BHAGS (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) is the word audacious!

As we look back on his legacy it is interesting to ask where does Covey fit in amid today’s leadership/self-help literature? Is his book still relevant?

My mentor Peter Cook helped me understand, and how to deal with the tsunami of literature in any area by saying if you want to master a subject, for example, productivity, read a classic such Covey’s 7 habits, a blockbuster such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done and a current bestseller such as, Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-hour week.

I can’t predict what might happen with the blockbuster and the bestseller. They both might become classics; only time will tell. But today Covey’s book alone stands apart as the definitive work on productivity.

So if you haven’t read it, it’s time to be proactive (a little ‘in-joke’ for people who have read the book, as one the principles is to be proactive) and lay your hands on a copy.

And if you have read it, the best homage you can pay Covey is to revisit it, and decide for yourself whether it has stood the test of time.


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