Stephen Covey's highly effective life

During Stephen Covey's long and fruitful career, he became a master of generating profit from ideas. But his ability to create a great sound bite is what he will be remembered for most.

One of Stephen Covey’s favourite tricks, described in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, was to imagine his own funeral. He would think about the flowers, the faces of the bereaved and the eulogies in order to help instil his habit #2: Begin with the end in mind.

For Covey, who died this week aged 79, the funeral scene is about to be played out for real. The chances are that it will be to his liking.

Already, the eulogies are flowing in from rival management gurus: Tom Peters has likened him to Nelson Mandela while Clayton Christensen – a fellow Mormon – has said that Covey changed his life. He told a story about how Covey, when at Harvard Business School, shunned the bar-room and went instead to Boston Common with a soap box, which he climbed on to and gave a jolly good sermon about the life of Jesus Christ.

In my own Covey story, which took place many decades later, the man was still sermonising, but this time standing on stage at the Grosvenor House hotel in London addressing several hundred men in suits. Each of them had obediently tied a white napkin on their head and was pretending to be a sheikh in order to learn about trust.

Watching Covey perform changed my life too – or at least my belief in the scepticism of British managers. I would never have thought that his mix of sincerity, evangelical zeal and management jargon would work in the UK. I was wrong. Those disciples could not get enough of him.

That was in 1995; in the intervening years his popularity went on growing more or less everywhere. 7 Habits is now translated into 32 languages, has sold more than 20m copies and is one of the most important management books of all time.

The reason it has lasted so much better than most self-help books is that its central insight is really rather good. Covey pointed out that the success of all organisations depends on the behaviour of each individual, an idea that is now commonplace, but was novel when the book was published in 1989. What Covey was peddling was a kind of total quality management for the character – as The Economist called it. He eschewed softie miracle fixes, preferring to draw inspiration from Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, who favoured integrity, courage and patience.

It is only a shame Covey did not stick to the prose style of his forebears. Instead, he has left a blemish on the English language by making popular such terms as "win-win”, "proactive” "synergise” and "paradigm” which, alas, show no sign of dying with their propagator.

Just as Covey was highly effective at changing language he was also pretty good at changing ideas into cash. The website of his management training company Franklin Covey says it works with 75 per cent of Fortune 500 companies and is active in 147 countries. Its motto: "We enable greatness”.

The 7 Habits formula has proved such a success that Covey went on milking it with a whole series of copycat books - The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, The 8th Habit - as did his son, Sean Covey, who has covered the rest of the waterfront with 13 further titles including 7 Habits books for teens and even for toddlers.

As well as everything else, Covey was a highly effective breeder, who created children in vast quantity (he had nine) many of whom went on to work for him. All nine of his offspring grew up in a big Utah household where the family’s personal mission statement was written on the wall. And all nine - with nine spouses in tow - were gathered around his deathbed last Monday; Covey’s 52 grandchildren were also close at hand.

But what he was above all was a highly effective master of the sound bite. Twitter this week has been alive with his disciples repeating his words. Reading them, I am struck by what an odd mix they are. Some are annoying: "Live out of your imagination, not your history.” Some are debatable, if not downright wrong: "Happiness, like unhappiness, is a proactive choice.” Some are banal: "Live, love, laugh, leave a legacy.” But some possess real wisdom: "Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.”

And one I like so much I wish I had said it myself: "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.


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