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!

1 comment

  1. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People profoundly affected me. After taking command of the USS Santa Fe I thought I might apply some of his lessons to running the nuclear powered submarine even though it was essentially a personal self-help book. When he heard what we were doing, he came and rode the submarine for a day.


    One of the lessons we applied was the concept of Begin With the End in Mind (Habit 2).

    We would have weekly strategy sessions with each of the senior officers and Chief of the Boat. We rotated, one a day, 6 a week with Sunday off. During these sessions we practiced the discipline of only talking about long term issues and issues that involved people. Maintenance and operational planning discussions were forbidden. When we started most of the officers only had a vague notion about what they wanted to accomplish personally and with their departments during their tour on board so we developed this exercise: write the end of tour award (for 2-3 years hence) that you want to receive. Be specific about the accomplishments.

    During the first go-around many of the hypothetical award write ups included laudable but imprecise phrases about improving morale, performance, promotion, or the health of their men. With discussion and work, we were able to take these imprecise goals and work them into measurable objectives. “Help my people get promoted” for example, would become “Promote 10 first class petty officers to Chief Petty Officer.” Once we had precise descriptions we could measure our progress toward the goal.

    I particularly remember Dave Adams’ write up which he did in the spring of 1999. When he transferred from Santa Fe in the fall of 2001 the award my boss, the Commodore of Submarine Squadron Seven approved for him read almost word-for-word like his write up. Dave went on to command the NATO Provincial Reconstruction Team in Khost Province, Afghanistan and is currently in command of his own submarine.

    I thank Stephen for giving us this mechanism for achieving operational excellence and writing the foreword to Turn the Ship Around!

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