We recently lost one of the great thought leaders of our time when Dr. Stephen R. Covey passed away on July 16th, 2012.
His research, insights and writings have helped millions of managers and entrepreneurs become more effective leaders in their businesses and most importantly, better people in their private lives.
Dr. Covey had a huge impact on my life when I read his classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, about 14 years ago when I was a young management pup who was well in over my head working to turn around a struggling service department for a 9-figure furniture retailer.
The service department was in shambles due to massive company growth over the previous 5 years and the neglectful management of an owner’s son who was more interested in making his tee-time at 2:00pm each day than he was in making sure his father’s customers were taken care of.
And with that kind of leadership (or lack thereof), you eventually end up with a negative work environment, massive turnover, out of control expenses and plenty of pissed off customers.
You also end up with a lot of disgruntled sales people who are losing commissions left and right because their support team is dropping the ball.
In order to turn the department around, I knew that I was going to have to learn more about managing a business and leading people. So I read some of the top management books from gurus like Tom Peters, Brian Tracy, Mark McCormack, Peter Senge and many others.
And while I picked up good bits of strategic and tactical advice from those books, it wasn’t until I read and started applying The 7 Habits that things really started clicking for me.
Dr. Covey explains the 7 Habits as a “paradigm shift”.
A paradigm is the mental map that determines how a person perceives, understands and interprets the outside world. They’re our individual maps of reality that we have in our minds, a series of ingrained assumptions of the way things are.
He says that our paradigm is more important than our attitude or our behavior and he gives the example of landing in Detroit and trying to get to a destination by using a map of Chicago.
It doesn’t matter how great your attitude is or how persistent you are with your behavior, if you don’t have the right map, you’re not going to get to where you want to go.
Dr. Covey says, “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster”.
We hear catchy cliches like “attitude is everything” and we work on finding new strategies and tactics to make business and life better, but most of the time we fail to get where we want to go…
…not because we’re not trying, but because we have an ineffective paradigm…we’re using the wrong map.
With 7 Habits, Dr. Covey provided a new paradigm that millions have used to become more effective leaders in business, more effective students at school and more effective people in all areas of their lives.
Dr. Covey explains the 7 Habits as an ‘inside-out’ development approach in that we must first work on aligning what’s inside us before we start working on things outside of us.
Here’s a high-level overview of Dr. Covey’s framework for the book.
Dr. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
1. Be Proactive – Being proactive is about not being reactive or blaming others, but understanding that we have the freedom to choose our actions that are based on values rather than external conditions.
2. Begin With The End In Mind – Beginning with an end in mind is about consciously creating a mental outcome for your project. It’s about not just living day to day with no clear objective, but identifying and committing ourselves to a quantifiable outcome and the values and principles that will guide our decisions and actions.
3. Put First Things First – Putting first things first is about not holding yourself hostage to the urgent agendas that surround you, but organizing and executing your activities around your most important priorities. It’s about living and being driven by the principles that you value the most.
4. Think Win-Win – Thinking win-win is a paradigm shift from “me” to “we”. It’s about having a frame of mind that goes away from adversarial competition and goes toward mutual respect and mutual benefit in all interactions and negotiations.
5. Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood -This is a shift in how we listen to other people. It’s about going away from thinking about what our response is going to be when it’s our turn to talk and instead listening with the intent of truly understanding the other persons point of view. And when we do that, speaking openly and being understood happens more naturally and easily.
6. Synergize – Synergy is about working together as a complimentary team in solving problems, working out differences and seizing opportunities. It’s about using the strengths of some to compensate for the weaknesses of others in a way that you make individual weaknesses irrelevant.
7. Sharpen The Saw – Sharpening the saw is about renewing ourselves in the four basic area’s of life: physical, mental, spiritual and emotional. It’s the habit that increases our ability to live all the other habits effectively.
In fact, Dr. Covey has said that each of these 7 Habits have origins in all of the world’s major religions.
The power of his framework isn’t so much about the individual Habits as much as it’s about how the Habits relate to one another.
And not only how they relate to one another, but how they pave the way for progressing through what Dr. Covey calls the “Maturity Continuum“.
The Maturity Continuum is based on the 3 levels of maturity:
1 – Dependence – The paradigm that we start out depending on others. Like a baby depends on his mother.
2 – Independence – The paradigm that we make our own decisions and we take care of ourselves.
3 – Interdependence – The paradigm that WE can do things. That our capabilities and efforts working towards a common goal can great something greater than what we can do as individuals.
You can see from Dr. Covey’s visual frame work that it’s Habits 1-3 (the personal work) that will help us get from Dependence to Independence and it’s Habits 4-6 (the interpersonal work) that will help us get from Independence to Interdependence.
And as you can see Habit 7, Sharpening the Saw, encircles everything which represents that working on the first 6 Habits is a continual and never ending process.
With this framework, Dr. Covey took a very complex set of idea’s, strategies, philosophies, behaviors and tactics and he simplified everything into an easy to understand road map that can be understood and acted upon to achieve greater effectiveness in any endevour.
Engaging Real Learning
Most people engage in “Intellectual Learning” – they read a book or learn a strategy and they understand it from an intellectual stand point, but they never actually use what they learn in the real world and “Real Learning” never takes place.
I like to call it intellectual masturbation…it’s a purely mental endevour.
Part of the reason why Dr. Covey has sold over 15 million copies of The 7 Habits is because his framework gets results for people.
People at all levels and from all backgrounds are able to read the book, understand the concepts and most importantly USE what they learned to improve the quality of their personal and professional lives.
After I initially read the book, I listed out the titles of the 7 Habits and I posted them on the wall in my office.
As I came across challenges in my mission to turn the service department around, I would glance at the list of 7 Habits on the wall and determine which habit I needed to focus on in order to overcome my pressing challenge.
And 9 times out of 10, I’d find the answer on the note card – “Ah, I need to be proactive to keep this from happening again in the future.”, “That’s right, I need to gain clarity on my ideal outcome here…“, “Okay, I need to get the team involved with finding a solution here…“, etc…
I didn’t have to reread the book or any of the chapters, I had done that…I just needed a quick reference reminder that would put me moving in the right direction.
I simply needed to reconnect to the paradigm, the North Star that Dr. Covey had laid out for me.
It wasn’t easy, but it worked.
The Payoff of Shifting Paradigm
By using Covey’s 7 Habits as my road map to guide me where I wanted to go, I was able to spearhead the complete turnaround of the companies worst department and turn it into one of the companies best departments.
Within 18 months we were able to cut turnover in half, reduce expenses, increase department revenue by 400%…
…and most importantly, we turned the department into a positive environment where we worked as a team, we took pride it our work and we enjoyed what we did.
And one of the coolest benefits of our turnaround work…that we all enjoyed, is that we had earned clout throughout the company. What we said carried weight with other department heads and top executives.
You see, when you’re part of a department that sucks and can’t get the job done…no one really listens to what you have to say. Why would they? You can handle your own job, they don’t want or need input in regards to theirs.
But when you’re part of a team that consistently performs at a very high level, people listen and consider what you have to say in regards to things that go outside your immediate responsibility.
And since we had become so good at what we did and since the service department comes across customer issues that involve every other department in the company at one time or another, we began having input in shaping policy company-wide that improved service to our clients at all levels of engagement.
Once we had our act together, we naturally started spreading Interdependence to a company-wide level.
Leaving a Legacy
I was fortunate enough to see Dr. Covey speak live a few years ago at a Mormon Church.
Being in a church setting he didn’t speak much about leadership in business, but about the fundamental responsibility to serve our fellow man and our spiritual need to leave a legacy by teaching our children to be leaders.
He talked about seeing and treating our children as leaders.
He suggested that we not believe their behavior, but instead visualize and affirm our children as leaders.
He said that, “leadership is affirming other peoples worth and potential so clearly that you are inspired to see it in yourself“.
It was a spiritual message to a spiritual crowd, but it’s a message that can be easily transferred to the boardroom and the sales bullpen.
Now that I look back on his talk, I can see that he had already developed a new paradigm for his yet to be published book, The 8th Habit (my personal favorite of his work), which is a road map that bridges the gap from effectiveness to greatness.
It’s a shift from the old industrial age paradigm of controlling and conditioning obedient employees to inspiring them to willingly volunteer their highest talents and contributions to your mission.
And isn’t that what we all want?
To be part of something greater than ourselves.
To be inspired enough by our mission at work to willingly, eagerly and happily strive to perform at the very best of our abilities and help others lead more fulfilling lives.
Not to have to do things because we’re told to or because we fear retribution from management, but because we are drawn to do our best and to do what’s right because it’s part of a calling.
And as Dr. Covey said, when we focus on helping others find their voice, we are inspired to find our own voice.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if it was common place for parents to affirm their children as leaders, if all teachers affirmed their students as leaders, if managers affirmed their employees as leaders and if politicians affirmed their constituents as leaders?
If we could shed the collective frame of blame and one-upmanship and continually affirmed one another as a leaders of light, love, purpose and contribution in a win-win paradigm.
Unfortunately we can’t flip a switch to make that kind of thing a reality, but can do our part and light a flame in our own little corner of the universe by starting with ourselves and the people that we touch everyday in our lives.
And we can now do that faster and easier than ever before by adopting the paradigms and by following the example of Dr. Covey who’s done the hard work of paving the path and laying out the frameworks that are both easy to understand and simple enough to implement in our everyday lives.
There’s no doubt that Dr. Covey left his legacy on the world, a ripple effect that will make a difference in peoples lives for generations to come.
And that begs the question, are we leaving a legacy?
Are we leaving the kind of legacy that we’re capable of leaving?
That answer is obviously going to be different for each of us, but if you’re serious about having a greater impact or even just being more effective at what you do it business, I’d strongly encourage you to pick up The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or The 8th Habit.
And you can also check out Dr. Covey’s website which has a great deal of really cool content that augments his teachings.
Rest in peace, Dr. Covey.
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