Revolutionary thinkers: Do Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits stack up

Revolutionary thinkers: Do Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits stack up

One of the more intriguing, and unusual, management gurus was the shaven-haired Stephen Covey, whose book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” has sold more than 25 million copies and regularly tops the list of the most influential business books of all time. Covey died last year, sparking a world-wide outpouring of tributes and sorrow.

However, the reasons for his overwhelming popularity are not immediately obvious. The book seems to offer, at best, common sense. At worst it is little more than truisms.

The aim of the seven habits is to acquire self-mastery, or independence, according to Covey. They are:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first (prioritising and planning)
  4. Thinking win-win
  5. Seek first to understand then to be understood;
  6. Synergize (combining peoples’ strengths); improving one’s attitude;
  7. “Sharpen the saw”: make sure to renew one’s personal energy and protect one’s health.

Building on his international success, Covey established a leadership centre, called Franklin Covey, worked as a speaker and consultant, became professor and presidential chair in leadership at the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and was involved in several education related projects. Until his death last year, he was one of the most recognisable of all the management thinkers.

Much of Covey’s approach was derived from his spiritual beliefs – he was a Mormon – and its moral teachings. But this does little to explain the book’s appeal.

Covey’s popularity comes not from what he wrote, but in what other management thinkers did not write.

The great majority of leadership writing is focused on what managers do, how they can achieve desired outcomes. Very rarely is there a concentration on what managers are. That is where Covey excelled and for a long time he enjoyed the field largely to himself.

At the time I interviewed Covey, his popularity astonished the world of management theorists. He attributed his success to starting with the inner person, which he called working “inside out”. “We try to get people working on themselves, then on their relationships, then on their organisations. The traditional approach is to work outside in.” 

Covey argued, persuasively enough, that what kind of personality a person has will affect what they do. “Take a situation where someone grows up in a family in which love is not given unconditionally; they are always compared with brothers or sisters. Then they go to school and are always compared against others for grades. Then you went to sports and you either won or lost. What if your whole experience of life is with comparisons? And you hire this guy to design your compensation system? What kind of compensation system will he design? Comparisons. He will set up incentives, so people fight for it. 

“Then you have [created] an organisation with no trust and no one communicating. A competitor then comes out that has no internal competition, and they eat your lunch. Go ahead and compete in the marketplace … not in the workplace.”

Covey’s plea that we recognise managers or leaders as people proved magnetic. Meredith Doig, principal of Midlothian Consulting tells LeadingCompany that she was initially put off by the title of the book, but when she read it she came to a very different conclusion. “It sat on my bookshelves for a couple of years before I could bring myself to read it such was my aversion to the title,” she says.  “However when I did, I found it was actually quite insightful.  For example, the introduction traces the history of how descriptions of human nature have changed over time, pointing out that before the 20thcentury it was common to refer to someone’s ‘character’ but since the rise of psychology as a professional discipline, it has become more common to refer to ‘personality’.

“Highly Effective Habit number 2 in this book was “Begin with the End in Mind” and it urged readers to develop a personal mission statement.  Now I don’t know about you, but if a book urges me to stop reading and do something, I usually ignore the plea and keep reading.  But the canny Dr Covey anticipated me, and reading on, I found his challenge to take the time to put into words what was important to me in life was ultimately compelling and so … I did end up writing a personal mission statement.”

Doig’s personal response to the book is common. One senior executive comments that she read it when she was comparatively young and it greatly influenced how she saw herself. When she re-read it some years later, however, she could not see what had appealed. “I realised that, now I am older, there wasn’t that much magic about it,” she says. “Most of his ideas have become part of the management lexicon. Habit 2, for example “begin with the end in mind”, we now describe as “having a vision”. Habit 3 “put first things first” – well, it’s true but it’s just common sense.”

The most enduring insight of Covey is his observation that managers should look after themselves first. Grant Dempsey, managing director of 4Networking Australia says this has plenty of relevance today, when people are time poor and the 7 habits help them achieve a better balance in their lives. “Covey identified the merging of business and private life,” says Dempsey. “[He explains] how it is possible to have business principles for family life and apply family principles for business life. You can have mission statements for business the same as you can for your family.”

Dempsey says many of Covey’s tools are still useful, but he believes the values underlying them are more important. “I see a lot of people in business are ineffective because their private relationships have broken down – look at [the world class, philandering golfer] Tiger Woods. I think looking at family is important, as well as taking time to be on your own.”

Dempsey adds that studies of the most effective business leaders have shown that they are often quiet achievers who subscribe to strong values – very much the Covey paradigm. “I think it is a value-based thing. Covey brought in that qualitative aspect.” Dempsey comments that Microsoft in the early days sought to balance work and family life. “Dads could play with their kids before going back to work in their pod.”

Covey called his principles of action universal, which was probably more grandiosity than profundity. “Another key difference is that we don’t focus on teaching people-practices,” was how he put it. “We only talk on teaching universal principles.”

Has he uncovered universal truths? They are perhaps more common sense, but as Covey was quick to point out, that is not necessarily common.

“Do you and I know some things we should do [that] we don’t? I shouldn’t eat that cookie, but I do,” he said. “What is common sense is not common practice.”

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