Thanks, Stephen

Stephen Covey passed away last week. There are already thousands of tributes online to the legacy that he left through writing, teaching and workshops.

I feel more drawn to talk about the man in relationship to his work. I met Stephen a time or two, at events where we were both speaking and through work with some of the executives at his company. I did not know him well; however, I have been in a position to observe his work closely. Rather than summarize his books or review again the content of his work, all of which is abundantly available online, I prefer to examine his impact, and his progression in thinking, which closely mirrored his progression through life.

Covey had an MBA from Harvard and a doctorate in religious education from Brigham Young University. With “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” published in 1989, he did for leadership and executive development what my old boss John Naisbitt did for economics with “Megatrends.” He took what was axiomatic knowledge for personal development and made it accessible and actionable. He put what many psychologists and early pioneers in the human development community knew into language and a structure that pretty much anyone could understand and embrace.

And we responded, buying more than 25 million copies. “The Seven Habits” became the foundation for an expanded business of training, organizational tools and partnerships that became ubiquitous in most of the developed world.

I get to visit executives on three continents with regularity. One of my favorite things to do is steal a look at their bookshelves. Not only is “The Seven Habits” on most of them, but it usually appears to actually have been read and consulted, unlike many of the books that I can tell have never left the shelf.

In 2005, Covey published “The Eighth Habit: Moving From Effectiveness to Greatness.” While it was an immediate best-seller, it was controversial among many of the practitioners who had trained to deliver “The Seven Habits” workshops. One I talked with was appalled. “For all these years it was seven habits, and suddenly there is a new one that trumps everything? No way.”

But Covey would have been working on that book in his late 60s. He, along with the age of his primary fan base, had moved to a new stage of life. Covey had been taking his own “Seven Habits” counsel and sharpening his own saw for a new purpose.

Covey once again provided a framework for baby boomers who were entering a new stage of life and wanted to find a way to leave a legacy – usually in the form of other leaders. This time, instead of focusing on what effective people do, he warned of what he called the “cancers” that could take the mature productive adult down a sinkhole to a meaningless existence.

Covey understood what so many of his upset practitioners did not, that as a society we have lost the tradition of honoring the wisdom of elders, in life and in business. And he provided a different story for millions who were hungry for a different form of retirement than they had seen their parents have.

While Covey was the poster boy for a positive mental attitude, his point of view also showed a tough-mindedness not usually associated with self-help gurus. One quote demonstrates clearly that he was not a peace, light and love advocate trying to convert the business world: “While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions.”

All in all it has been a very bad month for leadership in organizations. The news has been full of the Freeh report on Penn State, Libor rate fixing, scandalous behavior in banking and brokerage businesses and a surfeit of local malefaction here in Arkansas you need only page back to the Whispers column to see. Maybe a dose of Covey’s unbendable belief in principles would not be such a bad thing. Thanks, Stephen.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, July 23, 2012.