Stephen Covey: An Appreciation

Stephen R. Covey, Herald Of Good Habits, Dies at 79  (headline from New York Times obituary, Tuesday, July 17, 2012)

I vividly recall the circumstances surrounding my purchase of Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  It was nearly twenty years ago – 1993, I think.  I was on my way home from a series of tense business meetings with a corporate client in Dallas, and changing flights at some midwestern airport.  While walking across the terminal to the gate for the next leg of my trip, I happened to pass one of those omnipresent airport bookstores.

For most of the flight just completed, I had been mentally re-playing scenes from a series of increasingly frustrating interactions that had been occurring between myself and my boss in recent weeks, both before and during the meetings just completed.  The project that was the subject of those meetings had become a strain on everyone involved – the scope was enormous, resources were scarce and overtaxed, hard and fast deadlines were looming ominously ahead, and trust levels among the project participants were taking a precipitous plunge.  In the midst of this heated project environment, I had become preoccupied with feelings of resentment – my boss did not appreciate my efforts, he wasn’t giving me appropriate guidance, he didn’t have my back when something went wrong, and blah-blah-blah.

With my mind still racing through this collection of self-justifying and self-pitying thoughts, I caught sight of Covey’s book, prominently displayed on a stand in front of the store.  I had read some reviews, and was starting to observe more and more fellow business travelers reading it on the plane – and steeped as I was in my boss-related woes, I thought to myself, “I need this book, right now!”

Fortunately for me, I stopped right there and bought it.

As I opened its pages on the second leg of my flight home, it became immediately clear that Covey had much bigger things in mind for his readers than merely advising us on how to change the way our bosses were treating us.  He was demanding that we start at the source, by changing ourselves.  And his idea of change was not just some slick personality makeover, but rather change in the sense of a fundamental transformation in our approach to the world.  In his own words,

Each of us tends to think we see things as they are, that we are objective.  But this is not the case.  We see the world, not as it is, but as we are or, as we are conditioned to see it.

Of course, I was convinced that all of my complaints about my boss were completely objective and completely factual.  Slowly, patiently, Covey began to disabuse me of this mistaken notion.  Slowly, and somewhat painfully, I came to see that the source of all my frustrations with the working relationship I had with my boss was me.  My need to be appreciated, my need for his approval, my need to have him treat me as a friend more than as an employee – these were the roots of my discontent.

And with this key insight – that I was seeing things not as they were, but as I had been conditioned by a lifetime of experience to see them – I began at last to shed some of my useless feelings of discontent, and to take on some of the more useful practices that Covey outlines in his discussion of the habits of effectiveness.

Here are just a few of the key learnings I took away from The 7 Habits:

  • work on changing yourself first, before you attempt to influence others to change
  • know the difference between reacting to a situation automatically in terms of your emotions and responding to that same situation deliberately in terms of your values and your understanding of what is most needed in that situation; then train yourself to respond to events rather than react to them
  • understand the distinction between urgent tasks and important tasks; then arrange your daily schedule to give priority to what is truly important rather than to what is merely urgent
  • allot sufficient time in your weekly schedule for continuous personal renewal on four key dimensions – physical fitness, intellectual stimulation, social involvement, and spiritual practice.

Each of the above was of immediate value to me when I first read the book, and all of them have been of lasting value to me as continuing personal practices in the years since.

The obituary that appeared under the New York Times headline quoted above ends with the following paragraph:

In explaining his second recommended habit — Begin with the end in mind — Mr. Covey urged people to consider how they would like to be remembered. “If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience,” he said, “you will find your definition of success.”

I’m not sure that the epitaph assigned to him in the obituary headline – “herald of good habits” – does full justice to the way I suppose Covey wanted to be remembered.

My dictionary defines a herald as “a person who carries or proclaims important news; a messenger.”  Stephen Covey was much more than a messenger.  He was a wise teacher, a gifted writer, and an inspiring model of the principles he espoused.

I believe that is how he wanted to be remembered.  It’s how I will remember him.

And so, with deep appreciation, I give the closing words of this post to Covey himself, from his moving “Personal Note” that concludes The 7 Habits ….

I personally struggle with much of what I have shared in this book.  But the struggle is worthwhile and fulfilling.  It gives meaning to my life and enables me to love, to serve, and to try again.

T. S. Eliot expresses so beautifully my own personal discovery and conviction: “We must not cease from exploration.  And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.” 

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About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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5 Responses to Stephen Covey: An Appreciation

  1. Hi Tom

    Nice post!

    I had intended to do a Glob on Covey and I probably will! Under the aegis of the Covey organisation in UK, I taught a three-day course entitled ‘7Habits’ quite a lot for six years till 1999 and still imagine that I live by his elegant model. Teaching it of course entailed that I really get on the inside of each habit so that I genuinely walked the talk. I have a number of practical things that I thought I might share in offering an account of the way I used to teach it to all kinds of people who often came to scoff but remained to be quite profoundly affected to the extent that I know how much what we did changed their lives as it did mine.

    I taught 7H with NLP underpinnings (which Covey seemed to be rather unaccountably scathing about) and I recognised in his eclectic system a good deal of the Gurdjieff system – not that I imagine that Covey got anything from it.

    Hope it’ll be OK for me to make reference here to whatever I eventually write. I met the guy once and found him to be a warm & spirited chap.

    Colin

    Like

  2. Alok says:

    “work on changing yourself first, before you attempt to influence others to change”. I think this is the holy grail of self improvement and positive change.

    Like

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