Business Leaders: Stephen R Covey

The expert behind the 'most influential business book of the 20th century' and consultancy firm that counted 82 of the Fortune 100 companies as clients

Name: Stephen R Covey
Born: 1932
Expertise: Internationally respected expert on leadership techniques and personal effectiveness. Later a professor at the Jon M Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University
Known for: Adaptation of religious life principles into management principles to encourage a self-disciplined approach for managers
Best-known titles: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989); Spiritual Roots of Human Relations (1970); The Divine Center (1982); Principle Centered Leadership (1992); First Things First, co-authored with Roger and Rebecca Merrill (1994); Living the Seven Habits (2000); The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness (2004); The Leader in Me – How Schools and Parents Around the World are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time (2008)

Who is Stephen Covey?

Stephen Covey took BS in Business administration at the University of Utah, has a Harvard MBA and a doctorate in Religious Education (DRE) from the Brigham Young University, where he worked as a professor of business management and organisational behaviour. His 7 Habits book has sold over 20 million copies and been translated into 38 languages.

What is Covey known for?

Covey, a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), started on his seminal work when, as an MBA student at Harvard, he preached occasionally on Boston Common. Later whilst holding teaching missions for his church Covey prepared the ground for The Divine Center. In this he essentially communicates Mormon truths to non-Mormons by simply changing his vocabulary to more familiar ideas and concepts. This book was almost a dummy run for 7 Habits that followed seven years later. Rather than showing the principle of ‘centering one’s life on Christ’ and examining the 12 ‘centers’ such as ‘security’, ‘guidance’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘power’, 7 Habits takes a secular look at how we can improve.

His ideas have seen him listed by Time magazine as one of its 25 most influential Americans and this book was chosen as the most influential business book of the 20th century by Forbes magazine. In 2010, he was appointed a tenured professor of the Jon M Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University to lead the teaching in ‘principle-centered leadership’.

The concepts

Covey’s 7 habits

The book is prefaced with these words of Aristotle, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.’ Covey’s key concept is that by changing certain habits, though it is usually a slow and often painful process, we can become more effective.

Acquiring the seven habits of effectiveness that Covey describes takes us through the stages of character development.


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Habit 1: Be proactive

This is concerned with exploring ways to take control of events rather than being the victim of circumstance. Covey suggests testing if you have the proactive habit by noting how often you use these expressions. ‘That’s the way I am’ = There’s nothing I can do about it. ‘He makes me so mad!’ = My emotional life is outside my control and ‘I have to do it’ = I’m not free to choose my own actions.

Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind

Covey recommends developing a personal mission statement and acquiring what he calls the habit of personal leadership so that you can keep steering in the right direction despite changing circumstances. Developing this habit allows you to concentrate most of your energies on activities relevant to your end goal, avoiding distractions and in the process becoming more productive and successful.

Habit 3: Put first things first

The previous habit involves self-leadership, this one is about self-management. Leadership, Covey states, ‘decides what the first things are, and management is the discipline of carrying out your program’. Covey also quotes Peter Drucker, who pointed out that the expression ‘time management’ is something of a misnomer: We have a constant amount of time, no matter what we do; the challenge we face is to manage ourselves. To be an effective manager of yourself, you must organise and execute around priorities.

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Covey introduces the idea of tasks fitting into four quadrants, with ‘important – not important’ on one continuum and ‘urgent – not urgent’ on the other.

Reports, meetings, calls, interruptions and the occasional genuine crisis will drag us into spending time in quadrants I and III.

Time spent on quadrant IV activities is only for those determined to fail. (Don’t confuse quadrant IV with any of the activities recommended in habit, these are all definitely quadrant II tasks that need to be timetabled into your life.)

Covey recommends a way to up your time on quadrant II tasks. Write down two or three important results you feel you should accomplish during the next seven days. At least some of these goals should be quadrant II activities.

Look at the week ahead with your goals in mind and block out the time each day to achieve them. With your key goals locked in, see what time is left for everything else! How well you succeed depends on how resilient and determined you are in defending your most important priorities.

Habit 4: Think win/win

Covey’s complete description is ‘win/win – or no deal’. This is one of what he calls the ‘paradigms of human interaction’. The others – win/lose, lose/win, lose/lose are to be avoided. He recommends that your attitude should be, ‘I want to win, and I want you to win. If we can’t hammer something out under those conditions, let’s agree that we won’t make a deal this time. Maybe we’ll make one in the future.’

Win/win is based on the assumption that there is plenty for everyone, and that success follows a cooperative approach more naturally than the confrontation of win-or-lose; in short, a sophisticated twist on the glass half full or half empty attitude to life.

Habit 5: Seek first to understand and then to be understood

The key word in mastering this habit is ‘listen’. Listen to your colleagues, family, friends, customers – but not, as Covey states, ‘with intent to reply, to convince, to manipulate. Listen simply to understand, to see how the other party sees things.’ The skill he advocates here is empathy. Covey explains ‘empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is a form of agreement, a judgment. The essence of emphatic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully understand him, emotionally and intellectually’.

Habit 6: Synergise

Synergy got a bad press when it was used as the logic for overpriced acquisition strategies. The acquisition of HBOS, it was claimed, would give Lloyds ‘crucial advantages in funding costs and synergies’ and made ‘clear sense’ for Lloyds. Such was the view in September 2008, but three years later such benefits were less than evident. But Covey uses synergy in the sense that creative cooperation – the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – encourages us to ‘see the good and potential in the other person’s contribution’. Developing this habit can produce a steady flow of 2+2 = 5+ type results.

Habit 7: Sharpen the saw

Covey illustrates this by telling a story supposing that you come upon a man in the woods sawing down a tree. ‘You look exhausted!’ you exclaim. ‘How long have you been at it?’ ‘Over five hours,’ he replies, ‘and I am beat. This is hard.’ ‘Maybe you could take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw. Then the work would go faster.’ ‘No time,’ the man says emphatically. ‘I’m too busy sawing.’

Habit 7 is taking time to sharpen the saw (you’re the saw). It’s the habit of self-renewal that makes all the others possible. Covey interprets the self into four parts: the spiritual, mental, physical and the social/emotional, which all need feeding and developing.

How real companies use Covey’s concepts

The concepts behind the seven habits appear to be a superior and cerebral take on time management, so much so that in 1997 Covey joined forces with Franklin Quest Co, a leading provider of time management training seminars and products. The new business, Franklin Covey Co, is quoted on the New York Stock Exchange and has as clients 82 of the Fortune 100 companies and more than two-thirds of the Fortune 500 companies, as well as thousands of other companies and governmental agencies at all levels.

The ‘seven habits’ approach has attracted corporations such as AT&T, Deloitte & Touche, Saturn, Ford, Marriott, Xerox, Merck, Dow Chemical, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Energy, to name just a few. The dominant premise of the book is that to become more effective you need to change your attitude to events. You can either complain about the things you don’t like in your life or you can set about changing them. Not surprisingly, this has been adopted as a generic model for every subject from personal finance to marriage guidance.

Validity today

Covey’s ideas have stood the test of time, and in any event he doesn’t claim any particular right to his ideas, saying: ‘Actually I did not invent the seven habits, they are universal principles and most of what I wrote about is just common sense. I am embarrassed when people talk about the Covey habits, and dislike the idea of being some sort of guru.’ Covey has added an eighth habit for which he has written a 352-page book devoted exclusively to the subject of ‘from effectiveness to greatness’. Tapping into greatness, Covey claims, ‘is a matter of finding the right balance of four human attributes: talent, need, conscience and passion’ in order to move beyond effectiveness into the realm of greatness.

Covey’s work is certainly not rocket science, but using everyday examples of how people have improved their lives by adopting changed habits, he provides a route map to success.

Business Gurus, edited by Ian Wallis and published by Crimson Publishing, is available to order now.

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