Every generation has its thought leaders. Mine had Stephen Covey and The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People
Hearing of Stephen’s death this week I looked at my bookcase to see a copy of his seminal work. While I believe I gave the original copy away, his work was so powerful I made the effort to pick up another copy. This is one of the few books that I thought important enough to have its physical presence near me through all the office cleaning campaigns. There are not many works one can say that about.
Stephen’s work influenced a generation of leaders. It brought into our lexicon the concepts of ‘paradigm shifts’, ‘quadrant 2 activities’, ‘circle of influence’ and ‘sharpening the saw’. His work was universally applicable, simple and presented in an authentic and approachable way.
The issues he addressed in the late 1980s were the same issues we face today. And, while his guidance may be two generations removed it is still very valid. He saw a generation of leaders that were busy but not effective. He asked the question “How do we take these smart, engaged and well-meaning people and make them more effective?” In essence, how do we boost their productivity?
Like Napoleon Hill before him, Stephen researched the question and found what he believed are the skills effective people have mastered. He codified his findings into a simple, readily applicable methodology and presented this in his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.
What made his work different was that he didn’t just preach; he built a bridge to help readers become more effective. He showed his audience how to understand one’s current state. He showed us and gave us simple tools to transition to another, higher level. Then he painted his vision of a sustainable effective life.
His first three habits admonished us to look inward and showed us how to fix our own houses.
He told us to ‘Be Proactive’. This meant that we shouldn’t see ourselves as victims – we had free will. We shouldn’t worry about things we couldn’t change but focus on the one thing that we controlled – ourselves. If we focused on being the best we could be then others would be drawn into our circle of influence.
He continued by asking us to ‘Begin with the End in Mind’ where it asked us to consider our purpose, construct our own personal mission statement. He reasoned that before you can do anything you need to know what is important to you and where you are going.
His third powerful habit was ‘First Things First’. If you could only take one thing away from the book this was the golden nugget. This was where he gave us the 4-box matrix to classify all our tasks as important/non-important and urgent/non-urgent. This powerful way of looking at your life made you realize that you spent most of your time and energy working on things that were not important and showed you how to fix that.
In the second half of the book he transitioned from a focus on self to a focus on how we interact within our communities and companies.
The 4th habit was 'Think Win/Win'. This shared with us the theory of abundance where instead of life being how to get a bigger piece of a finite pie, we work to make the pie bigger and everyone wins – how to move from competition to cooperation.
Stephen schooled us on how to listen in ‘Seek First to Understand and then to be Understood’. This is a powerful interpersonal tool that uses empathic listening, or REALLY listening. We learned to diagnose before we prescribe. This one practice if practiced in our world can change hearts and minds through understanding.
In the 6th habit he discussed how to take the mix of varied businesses and natural chaos of these organizations to create a ‘Synergy’ that would use individual strengths together to the benefit of the entire organization.
To complete the journey Stephen asked everyone to remember to renew themselves emotionally, psychologically and physically by ‘Sharpening our Saw’. Many the harried and driven salary-man heaved a great sigh of relief as Stephen announced that taking a proactive restorative break every once in a while made us more effective. Constantly hacking away at problems eventually wore a person out and was not the way to cultivate long term effectiveness. Yes, it is OK to take a vacation. In fact, it is recommended.
My generation of leaders owes a great debt to Stephen Covey for his influential work. I remember reading it on an airplane on one of my many business trips. I remember how the pure, simple truth of what he said struck me. How it changed the way I looked at myself, my life and my career from that day forward.
It was a change for the better. How many millions of other souls have Stephen’s words inspired since?
Thank you Stephen Covey for contributing a work that changed the world in a very effective way.