RIP Stephen Covey, teacher and historian of self-help

Sad to hear of Stephen Covey’s death, but what a life to celebrate. Covey had a wonderful influence on self-help literature and business ethics. In a field full of charlatans and sleaze balls, he was a good man not primarily driven by the desire for money, fame and power. And he was a great historian of self-help. This from a CNN piece on him back in the 1990s:

After receiving an MBA from Harvard, Covey served another mission (three years in Ireland) and then returned to Salt Lake City, where he became an assistant to the president of Brigham Young University in Provo and raised nine children with his wife, Sandra. Finding himself interested in “the human side” of business, Covey obtained a cross-disciplinary doctorate in business and education, but he took eight years to do it.

The topic he chose for his dissertation was the “success literature” of the United States since 1776. Covey found that during the republic’s first 150 years, most of that kind of writing focused on issues of character, the archetype being the autobiography of Ben Franklin. But shortly after World War II, he writes in Seven Habits, “success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques, that lubricate the processes of human interaction.”

He began to think about ways to get people to stop cultivating superficial charm and return to character building, and at about the same time he moved from administration to teaching organizational behavior. His classes, incorporating the embryo of his Seven Habits program, began to draw huge numbers of students — 600, 800, 1,000 to a class, Covey says. In 1985, to take his message to a wider audience, he quit teaching and founded the Covey Leadership Center in Provo, gambling everything he owned: “my home, my cabin, trust money, all my savings — I was hocked unbelievably.” His collateral is safe now, and his habits remain modest. He and the seven other owners of closely held CLC are reinvesting most of the money that is cascading in. Covey tithes, and he still lives in the house he bought when he worked at Brigham Young. Not long ago he traded in his Toyota 4Runner for a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

There’s a lot of wisdom in Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – I particularly like the idea of focusing on what you can control and choosing your response to life’s events, or being ‘response-able’, as Covey put it. It’s an idea that I’d say first originated in Stoic philosophy, particularly in Epictetus. As a scholar and historian, Covey would have known that. I would love to read his dissertation on the history of self-help – Brigham Young University should publish it! Seeing as Covey wrote one of the best-selling books of all time, I reckon it should do well.

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