Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Great Man: Covey's Next Great Adventure

I can remember the first time I read Stephen R. Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the exercises he had you, the reader, do was imagine your own funeral, and what you would want people to say about you. Then he said, essentially, to live your life in such a way that, after you die, that is what people will say about you. He used this exercise to illustrate a more general principle of leadership and achievement, which he encapsulated in the phrase "Begin with the end in mind."

Aside #1: I used to teach that principle to my 7th grade math students, as a strategy for solving word problems.

Aside #2: Somebody once told me, after going through the funeral exercise, that the one thing they'd really like to hear at their funeral is, "Hey, look! He just moved! He's not really dead!"

No more asides. Stephen R. Covey passed away this week, at age 79. I'm not writing an obituary or a eulogy for him. You can find a lot of those on the Web. They're all very complimentary, and I get the feeling that when Covey went through this exercise himself, in the early 1980s, he probably wrote something a lot like what you can read today.

No, I want to go in another direction. Covey was not without his critics. They accused him of writing "platitudes" and of "stating the obvious." Uh, yeah. Durr.

There's a joke among high school English teachers, about the kids who say "Why do we have to read Shakespeare? It's just a bunch of old clichés."

Covey always said that he wasn't the first one to think of the principles embodied in the Seven Habits. He cited Peters and Waterman (In Search of Excellence) and Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People), who came before him. But the words and phrases used to describe the Seven Habits have become so common, so universal, so obvious, that they are now referred to derisively as "platitudes." A measure of their success is that they have become fodder for jokes, parodies, spinoffs, knockoffs, TV scripts and movie scripts — not to mention abuse and misuse by the clueless.

Like the clichés in Shakespeare, Covey's platitudes had to start somewhere.

Postscript: In case you missed them, here are Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

1. Be proactive.

2. Begin with the end in mind.

3. Put first things first.

4. Think "win-win."

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

6. Synergize.

7. Sharpen the saw.

Now, go read the book. You will never be sorry.

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