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Published 19 July 2012 10:11, Updated 23 July 2012 06:02
I was 20 and studying law at university in Britain when I read Stephen Covey’s seminal work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I think now that I was lucky to read him when I was relatively young.
I say lucky because at that age the impact of his teachings could not be blunted by years in the workforce or worse, an over exposure to management books that has bred a certain world-weary fatigue to the whole genre.
Instead, I was a sponge. I read Covey’s book with open eyes and the impact of what he had to say has never left me. I still remember the visual trick he plays in the book where he shows an image that could be – depending on how you see it – a beautiful woman or an ugly crone. In hindsight, it’s a bit of a cheap parlour trick but it brought home to me for the first time how everything depends on your perspective. I carried that book around with me for at least a year, dipping into it when I wanted to make sense of what was happening around me, looking to it as a guide to an independent life.
I was not alone in my admiration of Covey, who died last week following complications from an earlier cycling accident. The Seven Habitsof Highly Effective People has sold more than 25 million copies in 38 languages since it was published in 1989. In 2011, Time magazine listed the book as one of the 25 most influential management books ever written.
He wrote other books, including First Things First, Principle-Centred Leadership and The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness , but none hit a chord with so many people as that first tome.
That’s probably because it’s not really a book about management, or even the current incarnation of that skill, leadership. It’s actually a self-help book. You can’t put it in the same category as the corporate-focused Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy or James Collins’ Good to Great. Rather it is the successor to that of the father of self-help guides, Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People.
The book’s principle-focused approach (Covey was a member of the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints and believed in immutable principles based on “natural” laws) is easy for anyone to apply to life. The millions who bought it weren’t necessarily corporate managers, just everyday people with aspirations to be and do better. It was a manual for the American dream. Covey tapped into the same desire for self-improvement that Carnegie mined. Both of them set up foundations and courses that created a good revenue stream. In Covey’s case, he established the Covey Leadership Centre, which became Franklin Covey in 1997. It acted as a management and productivity consultancy around the globe. He was in great demand as a speaker.
Two years ago I bought Covey’s The 8th Habit (2004) and I couldn’t finish it. His deep sense of spirituality had evolved and unfortunately I think it did his writings a disservice. The spiritual message is so entrenched in the principle that it seems impossible to take one without also having to take on the other.
Then last year I went back to The Seven Habits. Reading it nearly 20 years on, I realised there wasn’t that much magic about it – or at least not from my more aged perspective. The field of management books has become crowded since Covey wrote it and most of his concepts have passed into management lexicon and no longer seem so special. Habit 2, for example “begin with the end in mind”, we now experience as, “you must have a vision”. Habit 3 “put first things first” we now shorten to, “stop procrastinating”.
It’s true, there’s nothing so special in it, it’s just common sense. But nonetheless I am thankful to Covey, whom I never met. It may be common sense but he was the first to tell me about it.
Stephen Covey: 24/10/32 – 16/7/12