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Friday, October 12, 2012

Stephen R Covey: The Great Management Guru of Positivism *

In today’s incongruent world of business, particularly after the financial turbulence caused by the US subprime mortgage fiasco from mid-2007 to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, then the Lehman-led nonstandard monetary initiatives launched by the Central banks of western countries which was duly supported by the respective governments with their supplementing acts of expansionary fiscal policies, and finally the ongoing sovereign debt crisis that engulfed the continental Europe, what we predominantly see in mainstream communications is gloomy headlines highlighting miserable predictions that are sickening to read.

It is perhaps understandable as to why such fears surface even among the intellectuals, for having inherited these fears from the cavemen as natural instincts that were once meant for protecting against predators and starvation, no one can escape from these basic traits. But what is more disturbing is the widespread pessimism that is inducing today needless anxiety and even paralysis among the leaders too. This has almost become a ‘contagion’.

But by contrast, entrepreneurs in general and particularly businessmen like Kumaramangalam Birla are still talking about expanding their businesses with cutting-edge acquisitions, remodeling their businesses with innovation and new technology and whatnot. It is indeed heartening to note that delusions have no effect on entrepreneurs. For them, ‘positive thinking’ is a powerful jolt of adrenalin that keeps them engaged in turning adversities into opportunities with all their brain-power. It simply keeps this lot laughing.

This takes us to the greatest teacher of the ‘positivism’, Stephen R Covey, aged 80 years, who passed away peacefully on 16th July “due to the residual effects of a bicycle accident he suffered this past April.’ Starting his career as a Professor at Brigham Young University, Stephen Covey, then switching over as an internationally-acclaimed writer, speaker and consultant, has impacted the lives of countless people—starting from school-going children to university students, from Fortune 100 company’s CEOs to Heads of States—around the globe. His book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has become an international bestseller—sold more than 20 million copies in 40 languages throughout the world.  In 1996, Time magazine recognized Stephen as one among the 25 Most Influential Americans.

As Brian Tracy, author of Psychology of Achievement, observed, Covey through his book— The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—opens the minds of readers to the “permanent things—values, family, relationships, communicating”—the all important elements to lead a successful life on planet earth. This book that is a ‘perfect blend of wisdom, compassion, and practical experience’ is admired as a provider of ‘empowering philosophy’ that can not only energize people to become leaders but also guarantee success for every business leader.  As Covey himself said, what his book prescribes as ‘effective habits’ for everyone’s practice is a decoction from the habits of highest achievers examined by him over a long period. And all this has been presented quite elegantly, yet as an easy to adopt program for ‘restoring the character ethic’—that very essential element for men seeking ‘meaning in personal and professional lives.’ It is for these exquisite qualities that this book has been named by Forbes in 2002 as one of the 10 most influential management books ever written.

Now, what are Covey’s ‘effective habits’ that made the world to sit up and look at them consciously, nay, that made the book sell over 20 million copies. At the very outset of the book, Covey, rightly, creates a context to make us believe that it is not necessary, at least always, to view a thing as one and the same by two individuals. He asserts that there is always room for a different perspective. Making us believe in this simple truth, he then goes on to list the habits that he wants us all to cultivate, of course, in an order. First cultivate such habits—one, be proactive, begin with the end in mind and put first things first—that make an individual who was born as a dependent, independent. Then he prepares us to believe a simple philosophy that life is interdependent and hence advises to cultivate the habits: one, think win-win; two, seek first to understand, then to be understood; and three, synergize. Once we are adept at synergizing with others to achieve life’s goal, he wants us to renew our resources, in short, to rejuvenate ourselves to achieve life goals by cultivating the final and seventh habit: sharpen the saw.

To be honest, these prescriptions, per se, may not sound great, for many might have heard of them from their grannies, but the way they were put across for easy adoption is what makes this book incredible. For instance, he explains pretty lucidly how we can preserve and enhance our worth by essentially following a path of motivating ourselves on four dimensions: one, renewing physical strength by exercise, nutrition, stress management; two, build social/emotional strength through service, empathy, synergy, intrinsic security; three, spiritual strength by value clarification and commitment, study, and meditation; and four mental competency by reading, visualizing, planning and writing. As icing on the cake, he sums up his prescription by saying that renewal as a process enables us to move on an upward spiral of growth and change, which means ‘continuous improvement.’ For this to happen, he says we must simply ‘learn, commit and do’ again and again and there is no end for it. This happens, he says, only when that unique endowment of human beings – ‘conscience’ – is in full operation.

Simply put, these habits sound easy but their practice is hard, for it demands a conscious effort. To cultivate that missing link, we all must listen to Stephen Covey. In today’s world of dog-eat-dog competition, and amidst all-pervading pessimism, it is time businessmen listened to him more intently, at least to cultivate ‘abundance mindset’ which is the right medicine for leading businesses in today’s troubled waters. And incidentally, nothing can hold us back from achieving this, for Patanjali, the great Indian teacher of Yoga, says: “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bounds. Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world.”    

So, we do have the potential, but what we must learn is to harness that latent energy. Harnessing one’s own potential is what today’s businesses—which are more challenging, ambiguous and complex—are demanding from their leaders. Moreover, businesses are today mostly run by knowledge workers, whose leading calls for an altogether different toolset, nay mindset. Indeed, organizations must move away from the traditional practice of over-managing and under-leading to setting a vision and mission before the employees and aligning them with it. Thus organizational vision shall become the shared vision of everyone in the organization. And that is what Stephen Covey discusses at length in his book The 8th Habit. To be a great leader, Covey says that one should find one’s own ‘inner voice’, and this, he says, is feasible when one develops one’s mental energy into vision; physical energy into discipline; emotional energy into passion; and spiritual energy into conscience—the conscience that enables one to differentiate wrong from right. And he stresses that this energy alone drives one towards positive ends. Once a leader has identified his own voice, he should then help others in the organization to find their inner voice. 

Stephen Covey finally makes us believe, of course pretty logically, that the greatness of leadership lies in finding the inner voice, developing a vision and articulating it into a shared vision, pooling all the people of an organization into one shared voice and ultimately creating order without demanding it. To prove his point, he cites the achievement of Gandhi, the frail man, who with no formal authority yet driven by his inner voice—“A life of sacrifice is a pinnacle of art, and is full of true joy which ever renews itself. A man is never surfeited with it, and the spring of interest is inexhaustible. Indulgences lead to destruction. Renunciation leads to immortality”—could make every Indian participate in the freedom movement based on nonviolence and noncooperation, and under whose inspiration the people could even face the might of the administration with ‘brave smiles and an almost unique pride and pleasure’ and finally make India free from foreign rule. It is only when leaders act with such strong foundations of inner security and an abundant moral authority as embodied in Gandhi—“…we have chosen our remedy. It is that of fighting evil by opposing to it good”—that organizations can achieve greatness, asserts Covey. This philosophy is perhaps more longed for in the world leadership today than ever before.  

Not surprisingly, even while articulating such lofty ideals in several books that he has written, Stephen Covey remained a down-to-earth realist. In one of his articles he asserts: “Never before in history have so much talent and creativity and raw intellect poured into the workforce…. But you need much more than IQ to get results…. Smart, highly motivated people can and do fail to achieve the vision they have set for themselves, and 70% of organizational failures are due to poor execution. What we need now is more ‘execution know-how’”, and of course, goes on to prescribe how to hone this skill.  What we have to really   appreciate in this assertion is: smart people too can have gaps; so identify the gaps and acquire the necessary wherewithal to fill the gaps and also let this endeavor be a constant in one’s life.

And the only way in which we can pay our tributes to a Guru who taught us how to look for opportunities even amidst stiff competition is to “act, act in the living present” with a heart within, for: “If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in character. If there is beauty in character, there will be harmony in home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.” 

*First published in IUP Journal of Effective Executive, September quarter, 2012.
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Dr.A.Jagadeesh said...

Great article on the Great Management Guru of Positivism, Stephen R Covey.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

karpuramanjari said...

Thanks a lot Dr. Jagadeesh garu...

Unknown said...

Great article on Stephen R. Covey.

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