Stephen Covey died this week.
You may not have heard of him, or even of his multi-million best-seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which was published in 1989. But you will have worked for managers who, whether they knew it or not, were influenced by his work. And, sadly, you will certainly have been unable to avoid some of the monstrous language of business and "self-help" ideas that Covey unwittingly helped encourage with the success of his book.
Covey's publishing triumph provoked dozens of other wannabe sages into print. So there is, unfortunately, a circuitous but uninterrupted line running from this wise old man from Utah to the inanities of "The Office". That is not Covey's fault. Indeed, it shows how poorly his work has been understood.
Covey's seven habits are all to do with the development of character. This is not a book about surface impressions, or boosting your charisma, or fast-tracking your career. If anything it is the opposite. Covey said we had to work on our inner, private selves first before we started worrying about what the rest of the world thought about us.
The habits are simple and homespun. "Begin with the end in mind", he told us; "Seek to understand before you seek to be understood"; "Put first things first"; "Think win-win." But the simplicity belies Covey's thoughtfulness and thoroughness. He was a university professor before becoming a "guru". And he had studied widely before distilling what he had read into his basic messages.
We have to learn to manage ourselves before we can manage others, he argued. And the timeless fundamentals of life - basing our work and relationships on sound principles - are what matter, not a flashy striving for effect, or "quick wins". In short, it is character that counts, and not simply personality, Covey said.
Viewed this way, his argument can be seen as slightly quaint and not at all modern. Until the great financial crisis struck, we had been living though an extended boom that was brash and exuberant. Flashiness ruled. Having a "big personality", and displaying charisma, seemed to be what mattered.
Perhaps in these more serious times the appetite for brash confidence will lessen. Character will come to the fore, ahead of personality. We will want more sober and trustworthy people running our businesses and organisations.
And perhaps, in the political context, Labour leader Ed Miliband might draw some comfort from this thought too. At the Labour party's annual business reception this week I saw him ask quite humbly for support from business, but very much along Stephen Covey lines. Help us to make our policies better, he said. Miliband was thinking "win-win". He "sought to understand before seeking to be understood".
The test for the prime minister, on the other hand, is to show that beneath his smooth personality there is a character there that is up to the hard task he now faces. It may be the case that he started in government "with the end in mind". What he has to do now is persist, and prove that he can be a Highly Effective Prime Minister.
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