A tribute to Stephen Covey (1932 – 2012)

Stephen Covey made an enduring contribution to both business thinking and personal development. His book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People published in 1989 has sold over 25 million copies. Time Magazine rated The 7 Habits as one of the 25 most influential business management books. He has featured in all of the Thinkers 50 lists from 2001 to 2011. But rather than continuing to list his achievements, I would like to focus on what Stephen Covey means to me – just one of his millions of readers.

Working at the boundaries

Stephen Covey wasn’t just a business writer. His books crossed over into the realm of personal development. He bridged these two spaces in a manner rivalled by few. One of his other stand out books Principled Centered Leadership offered guidance relevant to both worlds.

A member of the Latter Day Saints church, Stephen Covey was a deeply religious man. For me, his integration of business and religious thinking has been inspirational. No one has done it better with that level of success. His model of intelligence exemplifies this integration. In the 7 Habits, well before emotional intelligence was popularised, he identified four dimensions of the self, the intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual.

Later, in The 8th Habit, Stephen Covey applied this model to the business world. He advocates a “whole person in a whole job” where each of the four dimensions of the self are expressed:

  • use me creatively (mind)
  • pay me fairly (body)
  • treat me kindly (heart)
  • in serving human needs in principled ways (spirit).

The big picture

With his skills of integration Stephen Covey masterfully sketches out the big picture. His “five economic eras”, from The 8th Habit encapsulates human economy from the hunter/gatherer age, beyond the current information age, to his envisioned “age of wisdom”. He draws on Peter Drucker’s thinking on the massive leaps in productivity from age to age.

The great value in this concept is in understanding the limitations of legacy industrial age management processes when they are applied to information age contexts.    

“Its no longer a world of controlling people, it’s a world of unleashing people”.

 

The engagement connection

Stephen Covey’s clear articulation of the requisite leadership capabilities of the knowledge age focus heavily on communication. He offers lots of great communication tools and concepts such as the “emotional bank account”, but his greatest contribution in the communication realm is “voice”. When I first encountered The 8th Habit, I was a little cynical, thinking “how many other habits will be generated for future books?” But my cynicism evaporated with his masterful articulation of voice – the 8th habit is “find your voice and inspire others to find theirs”. This is an emancipating concept beautifully aligned with the needs of the age. For me, enabling voice, is central to the engagement process. Ideally, the loudest, or most powerful, or best resourced voice is not the only one heard.

Because he painted conceptually with such a broad brush, Stephen Covey’s work will remain relevant and will inspire for years to come. The concepts he articulates work at the level of principle and character and are therefore of universal application. May he continue to inspire!

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Staff engagement – more evidence

The evidence for the vital role of staff engagement continues to mount. The July/August 2011 Harvard Business Review includes a series of articles on collaboration. Yochai Benkler’s article The Unselfish Gene explores the fundamentals of human nature, challenging concepts of rational self-interest promulgated for so long. Scientists, psychologists and economists are now stating that people are less selfish than previously assumed. There is also “neural and, possibly genetic evidence of a human predisposition to co-operate”.

These findings support Jeremy Rifkin’s vision of an empathic civilisation, based on our inherent capacity to empathise. Jeremy Rifkin asserts:

We have to rethink the human narrative…If we are truly Homo empathicus, then we need to bring out that core nature, …if it is repressed by our parenting, our educational system our business practice and government, the secondary drives come, the narcissism, the materialism, the violence, the aggression.

Benkler’s HBR article presents the command and control systems that still dominate the business landscape as an emanation of the assumption of dominant self-interest. As our inherent collaborative nature is fostered, organisations will benefit from building cooperative systems encouraging communication and, “fostering empathy and solidarity”.

Other articles in the issue emphasise:

  • the need for collaborative leadership
  • create space for collaboration
  • building community
  • creating a culture of trust and teamwork.

Déjà vu?

While the biological basis of our empathy and cooperative nature have only been determined over the last decade, much of what is written will be familiar to those who have studied business. It’s over 50 years ago now that Douglas McGregor articulated theory x and theory y in his book The Human Side of Enterprise. There is a tidy correlation between the theory x position that people are inherently lazy and need to be coerced to work, and the assumption of people driven by self-interested. And the theory y position – that people can enjoy work and are intrinsically motivated aligns with the assumption that people are wired for cooperation and empathy, and want to belong.

So why, after 50 years does command and control remain the default management practice? I suspect it is because these practices have dominated human relations for millenia – such patterns of behaviour will not atrophy easily.  Jeremy Rifkin’s insightful observation that the secondary drives will dominate, reinforces the need to rehabilitate our social institutions and allow our inherent cooperative, empathetic nature to emerge.

Among the business writers to champion our higher nature is Stephen Covey. In this video, he traces human history and the legacy of command and control.

Engagement emerges as an essential pre-requisite to build the relationships that embed cultures of trust and teamwork. Engagement practices are generic, enabling them to be used for the full range of stakeholders, internal and external, that businesses need to co-create their futures with. Yochai Benkler, in his HBR article provides at once pragmatic and aspirational “levers” to achieve this:

“encouraging communication, ensuring authentic framing, fostering empathy and solidarity, guaranteeing fairness and morality, using rewards and punishments that appeal to intrinsic motivations, relying on reputation and reciprocity, and ensuring flexibility”

What do you think?