The Stephen Covey Phenomenon: An evangelization opportunity

Author: Jean-Francois Orsini


It is not the first time that a management guru has reached national recognition and fame outside of his profession and with the general public. But Stephen Covey is milking the situation to the last drop. His major book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" has boosted his management consulting career and his Covey Leadership Center from a $6.5 million business to a $76 million a year business. A recent issue of Parade magazine had dedicated to him its cover story. A hour and a half special on PBS generously presented his ideas, idiosyncrasies and experiences. He has become a household names from the most humble cottage to the refined fringe population watching the public TV waves.

Habits are stable dispositions to act. Good habits are virtues. Bad habits are vice. Stephen Covey teaches moral philosophy as the same time that he runs a multi-million dollar business. He puts to practice his own intellectual concoction through an organization which dispenses pastoral assistance (that is what "organizational development" is all about) to corporations, individuals and even whole cities, such as Columbus, Indiana.

Stephen Covey has an MBA from the Harvard Business School (where he got some of the content of his teachings) and an Ed. D. (a doctorate in education—that is where he must have gotten most of his pedagogical/psychological form of these teachings) from Brigham Young University. Stephen Covey is a Mormon but like most management consultant driven by their faiths—Peter Drucker is a Catholic, W. Edward Deming was a Methodist, I believe—he would not acknowledge his faith up front but would claim that his ideas are universal and belong to all faiths.

The Content of His teachings.

The content of Covey's teachings—or his ideas—are not earth-shatteringly new. He is talking about virtues and they are recognizable in spite of a different vocabulary.

Covey structures his seven habits into three levels or stage of human development: "dependence, independence, interdependence." The uneducated or immature human being is dependent of his surroundings, inculcated ideas and natural surroundings. Independence corresponds to the human being standing on his feet and fending on his own. Interdependence is when the abled human being is capable to interact positively with his fellow human beings.

To break out of Dependence, the first habit:

—Be proactive.(This is the Principle of Personal Vision). First be self-aware, then look at what people think of you, then decide that you need not be as you appear either to yourself externally or to others. You may be able to change completely your being. You have free will. You need not be reactive but can genuinely act from the basis of a well-defined plan. You can decide that you will act first before conditions box you in a situation. You can look at your surroundings and decide which is your circle of influence and which is not and how you can modify your circle of influence. You can decide to be somebody, instead of having things. You can learn to accept the consequences of your actions. You must learn to keep your commitments.

Then, the second habit:

—Begin with the end in mind. (This is the Principle of Personal Leadership) Look at where you want to go. What does "being successful" means to you? What is really important? "All things are created twice." Leadership is the first creation. Management is the second creation. The leader has vision. The manager implements the vision. If you do not plan, things are going to evolve on their own and out of control. You need to re-script: impose your vision on situations, become the first creator. You may want to develop a Big Picture vision: it is your Personal Mission Statement. In this statement, you will have to include the following values: Security, Guidance, Wisdom, Power. You need to recognize your centers: some of us are spouse centered, family centered, money centered, work centered, possession centered, friend/enemy centered or Church centered. Try to find your de facto center. The ideal would be to be Principle Centered. To develop a Personal Mission Statement, you need to use your whole brain: your mind and your emotions; your logic and your intuitions. Then you can try writing a Mission Statement for your family, your organization.

Habit number 3:

—Put First Things First. (this is the principle of Personal Management) This is where you are going to put your plans into action. You first have to be convinced that you will succeed. Then you have to organize your time and activities to lead to your success. You have to learn and refuse to follow distracting leads. Then learn to delegate: to use some one else's time is the best way to maximize yours. But delegate in ways that the people to whom you delegate can use their wits and mind to achieve the goals you want them to achieve.

When you have been well trained in the first three habits, you would have achieved Private Victory. With the next three habits you are seeking Public Victory. Now you are aiming at Interdependence. The first thing to know in that respect is that it is most important to build a reservoir of Goodwill towards you (the emotional bank account), you can do that by listening to people, keeping your commitments., do not hesitate to apologize when the occasion calls for it ...

The fourth habit:

—Think Win-Win (Principle of Interpersonal Leadership) In any situation look at the interests of the person you are dealing with. Make it a necessary goal that both of you will come ahead or you are not interested in the relationship (Win-win or No deal). For Win-win, you need character first and that includes a sense of Integrity, of Maturity and of an Abundance Mentality. With character, you need to build relationships with others and then to make agreements with these others.

The fifth habit:

—Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood (This is the principle of Emphatic Communication). To be a leader you need to communicate. First the communication must come from the other to you: listen with care (emphatic listening) to have a good understanding of the other's situation. In the process you will build your good will with that person. If you do not listen, you will tend to prescribe a remedy to a situation without having the proper data, the proper diagnosis. You need to tailor your advice to that person, you cannot prescribe the same remedy to everyone. Then seek to be understood. The communication goes from you to the other. You have to communicate your logic effectively but to do that you must communicate in the frame of reference of the person who listens to you. Your communication is ethos to pathos to logos.

The sixth habit:

—Synergize (Principle of Creative Cooperation). When social interactions work well, there is an added bonus to work done together. The work of two people working together at maximum efficiency is equal to the work of three people working independently. It takes flexibility and openness to work synergically. Most great organizations and especially businesses work synergically. All the members work with a win-win approach in their interrelations. The alternative is negative synergy where negativism is very much reinforced in a community. To work synergically we need value the differences of the "other" in front of us. We have to understand that synergizing is the way nature itself works.

The seventh habit:

—Sharpen the Saw (Principle of Balanced Renewal). This derives from a story: a person is busy sawing a tree but makes little progress. A passer-by asks him how come he makes so little progress. The busy person says that the saw needs sharpening but he does not have the time to sharpen the saw. To renew ourselves we need to act on the physical, the mental, the social/emotional and the spiritual plans in a balanced manner. Essentially we need to re-enforce ourselves in our vision and resolve. If we do that properly we will go up the spiral and become an ever better person.

Covey ends his book with a personal story on how he learned to better communicate with his wife. Then on a personal note of beliefs.

What are we Catholics to do with Covey?

First we need the humility to see that his presentation works. He is definitely touching people. They like the content as well as the delivery of the message.

There are naturally many things that are familiar to Catholics in his presentation. Let's look at what is not so familiar first and from which we can learn something..

The willingness to change one's environment is not so familiar with Catholics. We understand this attitude when it relates to persons on the way to sainthood who doggedly decide that they will change their habits and vision, that they will grow in the love of God no matter what. The Golden Legend of the saints is full of this pro-active attitude. When someone asked St. Thomas Aquinas how to become he saint, he responded: "Will it."

However, when it comes to the social teachings and matters of economic development, or even of work, the emphasis is mostly on the low achievers, the poor and downtrodden, the importance of trade union so that the weaker can gather some strength out of unity.

Many individual Catholics have been pro-active in the economic and political spheres but this has not yet left much of a mark on the Church's teachings.

A corollary to this pro-activeness in the field of work is the Abundance Mentality. To have the Win-win habit of Covey, one pre-requisite is the belief that there is abundance of material things. When two people interact there should be a way for both of them to find satisfaction out of the earth resources or even from the elements of creation. We, Catholics, are very much aware of the most generous gifts of God, as all things come from Him and we can count on the superabundance of what we need. But in practice, the social teachings have tended to see the economic pie in a static fashion without a hint that the pie may grow if we put ourselves to the task.

The social teachings are part of ethics and ethics tells us: "do good and avoid evil." The social teachings in the economic sphere, have tended to specialize in the "avoid evil" part. There is a general mentality that all matters of economic growth are inherently unethical-like the Victorian view of sex that it is inherently dirty. The reality is that most of us most of the time are preoccupied with work, developing resources and consuming resources. We go about it in a semi-ashamed manner without lending to it all our best.

The "Hail Holy Queen" makes us to implore Our Lady's help in this "Valley of Tears." We can ignore the underlying message. Or we can decide that the world is really uncomfortable and we better dig a whole in the earth and bury ourselves. Or we can decide that since the world is so unpleasant, we will seek pleasures to re-affirm our needs and ourselves. But another way to interpret this Valley of Tears is that we understand that the world is managed by the Prince of the World, or Satan, that sin and sickness are everywhere, that we need to cater to those who are belittled by these ills, including ourselves some of the time, that we need to bring to them of the message of the Mystery of Creation and of Redemption.

But the situation is not uniformly bleak. There are openings in the sky. And holiness and the divine vision are activities and dispositions which start on earth. We may be able to contribute to the incredible generosity of God to his Children, specifically His material generosity most of which has been developed with the collaboration of men throughout the ages.

Ethics, as applied in the economic sphere as in any other sphere, has two legs: "do good and avoid evil". By concentrating on the one leg "avoid evil", not only the other leg "do good" is ignored. But the agent, be it an individual or a community or the Church at large, is not moving forward and "avoid evil" is not progressing either.

Covey's Catholicism

Now let's look at the junkyard view of traditional values which Covey offers us. He found many elements which he found he could use in this junkyard.

The Dependence—Independence—Interdependence is interesting and reminds us of St. Paul and his way to refer to his teachings as food. "When you were young, you were drinking milk, ... now that you are grown up you need solid food...."

The first habit is essentially related to the virtue of courage. Get off your butt! and put yourself in the position to do something productive. The side-lines here is that human being need to exercise their intellect and will and go forward with their lives.

Begin with the end in mind. Start making plans: this relates to the need of introspection and of the forward thinking ability of human beings. It is also about the basic principles of ethics viewed in a Greek fashion: what is the end of man?

Put First things first. This is about the efforts of implementation, therefore there is a great element of the courage necessary to make things work. In addition, the stages of practical implementation require the need for prudence whereby we learn how to develop practical approaches to lead us to our objectives.

Think Win-Win requires the courage to view a positive outcome of a working relationship where none may appear initially, as well as respect for the humanity of others. That respect is naturally coming out of sense of Justice.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This, at times, venial interest in others can be also seen in a true sense of Justice and understanding of the humanity as well as eternal dimension of our fellow human beings.

Synergize, again the effort (courage) to work together and the prudence that that's the way nature work. There is an allusion here for Catholics in the Communion of Saints.

Sharpen the saw. That relates to the prudence of keeping one's tools in good order, the courage to put our tools to the grindstone.

Covey's habits show the cardinal virtues all over his work, with an interesting gap: that of the virtue of Temperance (although he mentions balance between virtues several times—that is a balance between the two extreme of a faculty rather than the balance of the human faculties within a human individual which is the result of the habit of temperance.)

Where Covey is wrong.

It is interesting to see Covey take a stand to favor "character ethics" over "personality (or psychological determinism) ethics" (it is even more fun to see Warren Bennis who had made a career as professor of management from a psychological point of view concur with him—I guess there is no substitute for success: if Covey's line works why not go with him?). Covey is the product of his business school formation and he peppers all his point with psychological elements from his former studies.

Covey defines "habits" as knowledge, skills and desires. Knowledge is a habit; it is even a virtue. Skills are not habits; they are more like the results of habits. Desire is not a habit. Desire is the appetite. Intellectual desire is the will. Now covey means the knowledge that one human activity is good, the skill to be able to conduct this activity and the desire to keep conducting this activity. He does confuse all the issues here. He is at the level of Socrates who believed that to know the good is automatically to want to do it. It took Plato and then Aristotle to refine a little bit this naive belief and to re-enforce the need to grow in knowledge independently to the need to grow in the will to do good. Plato clearly also defined that a virtue grows as we practice it. There is no real need to "Sharpen the Saw," although it is a good thing to keep fresh and in shape, physically, mentally, socially and spiritually.

Covey defines as Maturity the ability to grow towards interdependence.

Pro-activity is the first habit. On one hand it seems innocuous to tell people "if you want to change, get off your butt." On the other hand, there is a much more sinister aspect to it. Covey insists on the priority of his habits. In the Godfather, the book, the first several chapters show how the young Italian worked himself out of his poor condition of ethnic immigrant to become a recognized and feared capo of the New York Maffia. You cannot "do it" (as the Nike commercials invite us) and then reflect on what to do. Human beings have to think first, even if for some people it means to lock themselves up in inaction because they have not resolved what they want to do.

Pro-activity is not very different from re-activity (which is the forte of the animal soul) if we do not think through what we are about to do.

There are similarly many elements which are very odd (and potentially very dangerous) for someone who has drunk for the unaltered spring of Catholic wisdom. But we do not have the space here to go into each one of them. We need only to underline again the blind spot Covey has for temperance. He does not see that to begin to be moral and to gain personal victory over oneself, we need first to control our physical urges and keep them in check. He does talk about patience and anger and thus is close to relate to our innate aggressiveness but he only skims on the matter of pleasure of the senses. According to St. Thomas, as most people are sensual, they are not interested in the intellectual or abstract and further in the spiritual.

What is the great flaw of Covey is his view of principles which seems to be dangling in the air. They all have the proper names but we cannot see how they can be incarnate and how they relate to each other. They seem to be borrowed concepts from an alien culture (the Catholic culture indeed) which have been poorly assimilated.

The word "God" only appears in the last page in his personal note, where he recognizes that no change can come to us without the intervention of God. However, throughout his book, "spiritual" and "Church" seems to be notions that are completely divorced from God. Spiritual renewal is more like Yoga exercises. "Church" is a social activity which, at times, may be disruptive.

Covey, the great communicator, does not seem to communicate much with his God. He never requests His help to bring about change in his habits and personality. The metanoia he prescribes is purely secular.

Covey's success must encourage the Catholic Church to officially be involved with a apostolate of the workplace and the marketplace. Covey's errors is precisely what the Church needs to correct in this apostolate.