Covey, Stephen (1932—)

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Covey, Stephen (1932—)

Stephen Covey, one of America's most prominent self-help gurus, owes much to Dale Carnegie, whose best-selling book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, and its corresponding public speaking course are models upon which Covey built his success. The first of numerous books written by Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, was published in 1989 and helped his rise to the position of unofficial consultant to the leaders of corporate America, and guru to those in the lower levels of corporate management. His company, the Covey Leadership Center, founded in 1983, subsequently capitalized on the success of 7 Habits, which became a catch phrase for any number of simplistic and appealing ideas dealing with personal happiness and efficiency in the workplace.

Covey was born into a Mormon family in Provo, Utah. During the 1950s he completed a bachelor's degree in business administration at the University of Utah and an M.B.A. at Cambridge. In between his academic studies, he served as a missionary in Nottingham, England, training the leaders of recently formed Mormon congregations, and thus became aware of what it meant to train and motivate leaders. As a result of the particular nature of his training experience, a combination of religious and family values formed the core of his programs and writings. Covey taught at Brigham Young University where, in 1976, he earned a Ph.D. in business and education, but left that institution in 1983 to start the Covey Leadership Center.

The Center had an immediate, and almost exclusive appeal to the corporate culture, partly due to its marketing strategies, but also because of the timbre of the times. Corporate America was in a state of unease and flux, and workers and managers were ripe for guidance in their search for a sense of stability in their jobs and careers. The Covey Leadership Center promised solutions to their problems, and both managers and employees were as eager to attend Covey's programs as the corporate leaders—hoping for improved efficiency and morale of their personnel—were to send them. When The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was published, six years after the inception of the Center, it became hugely popular, appearing on the New York Times bestseller list for well over five years. The book stood out from the vast quantity of positive-thinking books available in the late 1980s, partially because of Covey's already established credibility, and partly because, as with the courses and programs, there was a real need for his particular take on self-help literature. The sales of the book increased the already sizable interest and enrollment in his leadership programs. Throughout the 1990s, according to Current Biography, "hundreds of corporations, government agencies, and universities invited Covey to conduct seminars with, or present talks to, their employees."

While many people attended these seminars and workshops, it is the 7 Habits book that defines Stephen Covey's identity as a self-help guru. Initially an integral part of corporate management literature, the appeal of Covey's message, as transmitted in his book, spread to people in all walks of life. Its popularity was such that magazine and newspaper editors, in their bids to increase circulation, would play on the "Seven Habits" theme in headlines and articles in much the same way that the title of Robert Pirsig's novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance spawned countless sophomoric imitations in the print media.

Stephen Covey was the first to admit that there is nothing new in his writing; indeed the very simplicity of his philosophy has accounted both for its popular acclaim, and for the not insubstantial negative criticism it has attracted in certain quarters. Each "habit" presented in the book ("Be proactive," "Begin with the end in mind," "Put first things first") draws on time-tested truisms and age-old common-sense principles. Covey's fans applauded him for putting these adages into print, in a useful modern context; detractors blasted him for repackaging well-worn and well-known information. Covey himself claimed that his book is based on common sense ideas, but that they needed to be restated, because, as he said in an interview in the Orange County Register, "… [W]hat is common sense isn't common practice." Another criticism frequently leveled at Covey is that, in his effort to show that each person is responsible for his or her own success, he trivializes the effects that flaws in the larger corporate system may have on performance. Thus, any failure is blamed only on the individual.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has transcended the corporate world and entered into the American collective psyche. The Covey Leadership Center, which merged with the Franklin Quest Company in 1997 to form the Franklin Covey Co., has turned itself into a cottage industry, supplying customers with all manner of related merchandise: magazines, audiotapes, videos, and, perhaps most pervasively, "day-planners". Once the chief product of the Franklin Quest company, these trendy signs-of-the-times began, after the merger, to include quotes from Covey's books. In addition to the 7 Habits book, Covey wrote a number of other books on related topics, including First Things First, and Principle-Centered Leadership. In 1997, he published a "follow-up" to his popular book, entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, which promptly landed on the New York Times best-seller list. Redirecting the thrust of his wisdom towards problems between family members, Covey seemed to anticipate the changing mood and tone of America, which, in the wake of contradictory political messages, had become, by the late 1990s, more concerned with "family values."

Stephen Covey is, perhaps, not quite a household name, but the "7 Habits" phrase, and the concept and book from which it originates, has become an emblem of the American people's desire for stability and self-improvement, in their careers and in their personal lives. It represents the people's search for an antidote to the confusing, contradictory and often disturbing events in the corporate and political worlds during the 1990s. The extent to which "7 Habits" has permeated the culture shows a desire, in the face of growing and changing technology, for simple truths, and for courses of action that can be easily understood and executed.

—Dan Coffey

Further Reading:

Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families: Building a Beautiful Family Culture in a Turbulent World. New York, Golden Books, 1997.

——. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, Simon& Schuster, 1992.

Current Biography. New York, H.W. Wilson. January, 1998, 19-21.

Smith, Timothy K. "What's So Effective About Stephen Covey?"Fortune. December 12, 1994, 116-22.

Walker, Theresa. "Stephen Covey." The Orange County Register.March 3, 1998.

Wolfe, Alan. "Capitalism, Mormonism, and the Doctrine of StephenCovey." The New Republic. February 23, 1998, 26-35.