12 July 2014

Thank you, Stephen Covey


Stephen Covey died on 16 July 2012. He was 79 years old, and had led a productive life. His best-known contribution is his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. When I read it, sometime in the 1990s, I was charmed by the theory and so influenced by it that I tried my best to practice the Habits it propounded. I felt that the book had changed my life. Nearly two decades later Sunday Mid-day asked if I’d interview him. I was thrilled! It was only a phone interview, but still. He was visiting Bombay and they had been given a 15-minute telephone slot. The interview was fixed for 8pm on 14 January 2009.
As it happened, that was my father’s 75th birthday. The family was celebrating with dinner at what was then the poshest place in Pune, the Chinese (that’s what they still called it back then) restaurant at the Taj Blue Diamond (that’s what they still called it back then). It was quite an exercise because he had advanced Parkinson’s but did not like to use a wheelchair, and would walk with support, shuffling along slowly and drawing gawks.
I had told everyone that I’d have to be excused for 20 minutes. As we entered, I located a quiet spot where I could leave the group and settle to take the call. We were seated well in time. But, just as the interview began, a group of rowdy children began playing, running up and down the staircase and yelling loudly. They yelled right through the interview. When I listened to the recording next morning, I could hear their yells louder than anything Stephen Covey told me. But I did transcribe and file it in time and it appeared that Sunday. What I remember even more than the noisy children was how disappointed I was with Stephen Covey’s replies to my questions. So it was a big surprise when I received a number of compliments over the next few days. It was only much later that I realised why I’d been disappointed. It was because his replies were telling me things I already knew. They were things I’d already learnt: from Stephen Covey himself.
Here’s the article, which appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 18 January 2009.
In 1989, the world was a different place.
The use of commercial email had just been authorised for the first time and Google was still nearly a decade in the future. It was only a privileged few who had begun using cell phones, and global communication was still a cumbersome process. Reality TV had not yet become mainstream.
Connectivity and supply-chain were concepts still in the future, and Japanese management techniques were still on the periphery. India had produced only 2 crowned international beauty queens in all of history. We had not yet emerged as a world technology leader and were still struggling with the License Raj, still looking anxiously to the West for direction in literature, fashion and social values.
It was at this time that Stephen Covey’s new concepts caught the fancy of people round the world, and from the author of a brilliant and useful book he became, almost overnight, one of the great gurus of self help, and a sought-after personal-growth trainer for corporates. His book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People went from bestseller to bible to cliché.
Many of the most widely accepted concepts of effective management today – including “prioritization”, being “proactive”, achieving “synergy” and “win-win” – stem from Covey’s movement. They continue to be preached and valued, even two decades later in today’s much-changed environment.
This book transcends what it calls “the personality ethic”, something that instructs us on issues like making eye contact, using people’s names while talking to them, and making sure to wish everyone we know on their birthdays. It promotes, instead, “the character ethic” through a set of clearly-defined principles.
To read this book is to enjoy and appreciate it.  To put its principles to work is to experience a new and uplifting energy and clarity.
Today, at 77, Dr. Covey continues to spread his creed through structured workshops all over the world.
Did you draw on any particular religious theory or religious experience to produce this book?
No, I did not. But I studied for my PhD in Religious Education. Each of the seven principles in my book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is based on universal and timeless concepts which every religion preaches. I could see that in these lay the solutions to many of the world’s problems.
Today in this economic downturn, it’s more than ever important to learn to internalise these principles and use them to manage ourselves at an individual level. They can empower groups of people inside our organizations, and we must allow them to permeate the entire culture of our organizations.
Be proactive. Begin with the end in mind. Put first things first. Think win-win. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Synergize. And always work to sharpen these skills.”
What about the 8th Habit?
It’s about achieving your full potential. It leads you from Effectiveness to Greatness. There are 6 Cancers that inhibit people’s greatness: Cynicism, Criticism, Comparing, Competing, Complaining, Contending, and if we allow them they will consume the body, the mind, the heart and the spirit. We must not let them infect our cultural DNA!
We must learn not to let ourselves feel victimised, or that we are a product of other people’s image of us. When we overcome those cancers, we can build a culture which is positive and cohesive.
Tell me something about the new Stephen Covey on-line community.
It’s a space that’s open to all, but most useful to youngsters. We are trying to use the internet to promote these principles. The 7 Habits and their offshoots are imbibed and practiced through shared learning, goals and journal entries. 
Admirable – but how would you advise us to detach youngsters from television, computer games and social networking sites and interest them in your community?
Parents and teachers must take the initiative. My wife and I have 9 children and 49 grandchildren. The children in our family have grown up involved in various projects, and with rules and discipline. They are only allowed to watch television one hour a day, and watch a football game or a movie only on a weekend.
We have brought them up to avoid comparisons between people. Television is one of the factors that compels us to compare ourselves with other people, and this is something that damages our cultural DNA. The principles of the 7 Habits form a culture.
We are warned more and more about the threat of identify theft. However, the greater identify theft is our cultural DNA; it’s not someone taking your wallet and using your credit cards – that’s very superficial. It’s about the profound identity threat that comes from people being raised in a comparison-based culture.
Do you feel that the new accounting standards laid down by the International Financial Result Standards (IFRS) are adequate to address the needs of the new and changing environment?
The accounting norms we use today were laid down during the industrial revolution. Machines are recorded as assets and people are recorded as expenses. But today in the knowledge age, what you don’t find in the balance sheet of a company can be far more valuable than what you do find.
I think companies can correct this by bringing in cultural change through the 7 Habits. They must bring principles into the organization using a top-down command and control approach.
The subprime mess in the US has created a global mess that’s eroded half the wealth of the rest of the world and the collapse can largely be attributed to personal greed. People in your country have not been listening to you! What are you doing about it? 
When examining the great losses we’re seeing in the global financial crisis, one of the greatest losses we feel is broken trust. But all is not lost. It is a challenging path and a time consuming one, but trust can be re-built and restored.
My organization and I are working hard at many different levels – family, school, organization and government. I have even trained heads of state to work using these principles.
It is these principles that can save the companies.
As you know, we in India have recently been a target of global terrorism. You’re a proponent of fairness, integrity, honesty and human dignity. Can you tell us how we can specifically use these virtues in an environment where terrorism may strike anywhere and at any time?
Yes. We must use the Inside Out approach. We must work first on ourselves, and spread the principles through our circles of influence. We must all work hard to create a world in which people don’t control us, only our principles control us.
Rest In Peace, Dr Covey. And thank you so much.