Appreciations: Stephen Covey, Proselytizer Of Proactivity

Tributes to Stephen Covey, whose self-help principles crisscrossed the threshold from workplace to home in ways that programs like Six Sigma or Deming’s 14 Principles never could, have been pouring in since his death Monday resulting from a biking accident several months ago. At 79, Covey took a tumble on a downhill run in April and never recovered from head injuries he sustained. 

Covey’s most influential book is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic, which was first published by Simon & Schuster in 1989. It has sold more than 20 million copies, still tops some “most popular” self-help lists, and inspired a spate of imitators. Covey was co-founder and a former vice-chairman and director of FranklinCovey, a consultancy that specializes in performance improvements requiring “a change in human behavior.”



Many of Covey’s tenets were neat aphorisms, not unlike those of one of his heroes, Benjamin “An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away” Franklin. Such thoughts as “Effective leadership is putting first things first” are widely culled, collected and circulated on the Internet. “Effective management,” by the way, “is discipline, carrying it out.” And “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

The 7 Habits are:

  • Be Proactive 
  • Begin with the End in Mind 
  • Put First Things First 
  • Think Win/Win 
  • Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood 
  • Synergize 
  • Sharpen the Saw

“The ideas, all seven of them, still sound so simple,” writes John Hillkirk in USA Today. “Yet they made Stephen Covey a force of human nature, his 7 Habits woven into the emotional well-being of millions in almost any walk of life, from self-help to the corner offices of Corporate America.”

The last habit, “Sharpen the Saw,” means taking time “to build production capacity through personal renewal of the physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual dimensions and maintaining a balance among these dimensions,” according to summary of the book on QuickMBA.

Covey’s principles were closely aligned with his Mormon faith, many obits point out, but he “denied a Mormon bias,” Douglas Martin writes in the New York Times. Before 7 Habits became a runaway bestseller in about 40 languages, he wrote another widely read book, Spiritual Roots of Human Relations, according to Trent Toone in the Deseret News.

First published in 1970, Covey wrote in the introduction: "The roots of the problems we face in the world, in our national life and in our family and personal lives, are spiritual. The symptomatic manifestations (branches) of these problems are social, economic and political, but the roots are moral and spiritual. And they lie first within each individual and then within the family."

In 2002, Forbes named The 7 Habits one of the 10 most influential management books ever written and Covey was recognized as one of Time’s 25 Most Influential Americans in 1996, according to a release issued by FranklinCovey. But “to Stephen, more important than his professional work was his work with his family,” it goes on to say. He leaves a wife, Sandra, nine children, 52 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

Among Covey’s other bestsellers are First Things First, Principle-Centered Leadership, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, and The 8th Habit. His most recent books include The 3rd Alternative, The Leader in Me, and Everyday Greatness.  

Another professional/personal crossover author, Dale Carnegie, was actually the spearhead of a different kind of self-help philosophy –- one that Covey found troubling. 

“Working on his doctoral thesis at Brigham Young University, where he was also a professor, he reviewed nearly two centuries of American ‘success literature…,’ a genre that traces its roots back to Ben Franklin’s Autobiography,” recounts Mark Kellner in The Washington Times. “Where Franklin noted a list of positive virtues he wanted to cultivate, Dale Carnegie, in the 1930s, shifted to developing the kind of pleasing personality guaranteed to Win Friends and Influence People.” 

“He noticed that the literature of the 20th century was dominated by gimmicks or ‘social Band-Aids’ to improve the personality,” observes USA Today’s Hillkirk. “In contrast, the literature of the first 150 years -- in the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, for example -- was based on character and principles such as integrity, courage and patience.” 

Covey leaves a legacy of integrity, humor and fond remembrances, which is fitting. “In the last analysis,” he once wrote, “what we are communicates far more eloquently than anything we say or do.”

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