Stephen R. Covey Taught Me Not to Be Like Him – Harvard Business Review

Stephen R. Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, died yesterday. In a testament to his impact, his passing was news on CNNThe Washington Post and in many other publications around the world.

The comments on these obituaries include two very divergent types. On group says he was a “snake oil salesman” who “started a wave of BS in the corporate world — all about clichés and posters and one liners.” The other says “he cleared out a lot of BS by making some important ideas simpler to grasp.” Which is it?

I have read every word Stephen R. Covey has published. And by read I mean read, reread, taught, thought deeply about and tried to apply. Certainly, I have done my fair share of thinking on the principles and ideas he espoused, which have been shared in almost every corner of the world. At more than 20 million books sold, he has clearly been one of the most widely read management thinkers of the last thirty years. The 7 Habits alone has been published in 38 languages. At the height of his fame he was named one of Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential Americans.

On a more personal level, Stephen took time to support my own efforts to teach and write. Whether in his home, on the phone or in encouraging notes along the way, I benefited from his personal mentoring. In one of our first conversations, when I was 21 years old and hungry to write my first book, he said “Oh Greg, you are so naïve, you have no idea about life. You don’t even know what you don’t know!” And I wondered whether this was really the principle-centered leader I had heard so much about! But then he continued, “But so were many of the thinkers and leaders before you. They had a mission. So do you. That is enough.” Then, he sent a follow-up note, saying “Some day, you’ll send me your magnum opus full of spirit, vision, love and insight. God bless you to fulfill your dream in blessing His children. Love, Stephen.”

Yet, I have also seen the ideas Stephen taught being used like scenes from The Office: like the tyrannical boss who printed large posters with the word, “Synergize!” and posted them around the office cubicles (a true story). Like something from a Dilbert piece, these moments are cringe-worthy. Indeed, the hypocrisy people feel when they hear such mantras and see such behavior is truly painful.

I do not seek in this piece to summarize Stephen’s thinking nor necessarily to advocate it. I am confident I can go toe-to-toe on any aspect of his thinking and writing with critics or zealots. What I learned from Stephen was not to be like him. The principle that captures my own sense is: “Follow not in the footsteps of the masters, but rather seek what they sought.”

Stephen Covey sought to shake corrupted assumptions embedded in organizations everywhere. He believed in creating organizations that are different than the ones we have inherited. There is irony that some of his ideas are now clichés within the very systems he sought to dismantle, but it doesn’t change the importance of his intent. His vision was to create schools, hospitals, governments and institutions that throw out industrial age thinking and innovate to create something better. We are still barely scratching the surface on this, but the work has begun.

He believed in teaching children to be leaders. In an awkward interaction here, Stephen was asked, “What do you want to be known for?” and he answered, “Every child is a leader.” It doesn’t seem like an answer to the question — unless it is. Teaching children to be leaders may well be a mechanism for changing the world. For example, I recently interviewed a couple, James and Shaylyn Garrett, who are in Jordan training teachers and students critical thinking skills and other leadership principles. Their work is a quiet revolution — one that is desperately needed. Thomas Friedman recently cited the amazing work they are doing in a column for The New York Timescalled, “First, Tahrir Square, Then The Classroom.” It’s the kind of work that truly does change the world, and leaves a lasting legacy.

Stephen aimed to be a light, not a critic. According to Cynthia Haller, Stephen’s oldest daughter, when Bill Clinton was running for President of the United States in 1992, Stephen was at a gathering where many people were badmouthing Clinton, but he refused to participate. Someone asked him what he thought and he said, “I don’t want to criticize him, because I never know if I’ll have a chance to influence him. I don’t want to be a hypocrite if he ever needs my help.” A couple of months later he received an unexpected call from President Clinton: “I just read 7 Habits twice,” Clinton said. “I want to integrate this into my presidency.” A few days later, Stephen flew to Camp David to share his insights with both President Clinton and Hillary Clinton. And they asked him to stay an extra day. (Read more of this account here). Stephen told me that when he was teaching at a conference, he would arrange meetings with national leaders wherever he was. He taught 50 Heads of State around the world. That is a vision worthy of emulation.

In his speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

There are many who want to be like Stephen Covey. There are many who didn’t like the way his ideas were expressed or applied. But Stephen was a man who was in the arena trying to teach and make a difference. In this pursuit, I do aspire to be like him.

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2 thoughts on “Stephen R. Covey Taught Me Not to Be Like Him – Harvard Business Review

  1. D. Wigglesworth says:

    I have never read any of Mr Covey’s writings, but your post might just tip the balance in favour of that.

    That there are such varying responses to his work suggests perhaps nothing more than this: Revolutionary ideas are often widely misapprehended.

  2. Daniel Latch says:

    Greg, you remind me of W.E. Deming’s encouragement to me when I attended his four-day program as a young Marine in Kyoto, Japan, 1975. As I recall, it went like this: “What you will learn is a theory of leadership, a system for controlling variation, and a tool for measuring outcomes and taking action. This is your beginning. Your starting point. When you leave here, your job is to not to repeat what I say but to capture the essence and to extend it in a way that makes sense to those who need it. You must travel beyond what I present to you and use it to shape your thinking and guide your actions so that you can help build a better world. In is not enough to know. You must teach and apply your knowledge to your self.”

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