In the first of a new series in which he revisits famous business books and reviews bestsellers, Brendan Walsh highlights insights crucially relevant for today’s leaders. Here he delves into Stephen R Covey’s motivational classic
The story goes that Stephen R Covey was enjoying a sabbatical with his family in Hawaii when he happened upon a college library book that would change not only his, but millions of other lives. “My eyes fell upon a paragraph… which communicated the simple idea that there is a space between any stimulus and the response to it,” he later wrote. “The key to our growth and happiness is how we use that space.”
A quarter of a century later, the book that grew from his epiphany has sold more than 20 million copies – one of which is on my bookshelf – and has been translated into 38 languages worldwide. Among its admirers is Bill Clinton, who read it twice in succession before promptly summoning Covey to Camp David to advise him on how to integrate its teachings into his presidency.
Covey’s message became a publishing and motivational-speaking empire. His performance improvement consultancy, FranklinCovey, posted a $7.8m (£4.6m) profit in 2012 – the year that he died, at the age of 79. He left behind a wife, nine children, 52 grandchildren, a flock of devotees at the Jon M Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University, where he was a professor, and a philosophical legacy that continues to enrich the lives and businesses of millions the world over.
One of the first things that struck me about this mega-selling business tome, when I first read it some years ago, is how little Covey actually refers to business, management or commerce. Rather, the book instructs readers to lead a holistic, integrated approach to all of life’s challenges rather than the scattergun, hand-to-mouth approach we are prone to developing. Success in business will inevitably stem from the much broader life competence the seven principles implant.
The first of these asks readers to be proactive, and take responsibility for their destinies rather than blame external factors such as circumstance or environment. The next two habits – ‘Begin with the End in Mind’ and ‘Put First Things First’ – encourage the implementation of a long-haul game plan with its stages placed in a logical strategic order. Habit four (‘Think Win-Win’) is about mutually beneficial solutions while habit five (‘Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood’) promotes empathy. The sixth principle, ‘Synergize’, concerns the importance of positive teamwork, while the final one – ‘Sharpen the Saw’ – is about continued renewal of one’s inner resources.
As relevant as ever, Covey refers to his seven principles as being the ‘true north’ codes of the human character, so it follows that they are eternal in nature. As the IoD social media tutor, Martin Thomas, put it recently: “The core skills of leaders are no different in this digital age. Business fundamentals haven’t changed.”
In fact, though, this book has gone one better than remaining relevant: it’s become more and more pertinent as our lives have become more frenetic, more complex and more packed with duties, information, messages, stimuli and distractions. “The greater the change and more difficult our challenges,” as Covey himself said in 2004, “the more relevant the habits become.” I couldn’t concur more strongly: these days, in order to navigate the vastly more complex business landscape we inhabit, the internal compass Covey’s book instils in the reader has never been more valuable. It’s a tome I’ll refer to for many years to come.
If there was just one thing I could recommend picking up and doing from this book, it’s from the chapter, ‘Put First Things First’. Covey posits a Time Management Matrix which breaks down the different ways we spend our time into four segments, helping the reader to distinguish what is ‘Urgent’ from what is ‘Important’. Important tasks, he points out, relate to results, either immediate (dealing with work-related crises, impending deadlines) or longer-term (relationship building, opportunity spotting etc). The message? Don’t be seduced by the power of ‘urgency’.