RIP Stephen Covey, teacher and historian of self-help

Sad to hear of Stephen Covey’s death. Covey had a wonderful influence on the literature of self-help and business leadership. In a field full of charlatans, he was a good man and a great historian, who brought self-help back to its historical roots. This from a CNN piece on him back in the 1990s:

After receiving an MBA from Harvard, Covey became an assistant to the president of Brigham Young University in Provo. 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.”

Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People became one of the best selling books of all time. It’s a good read –  I particularly like the first habit, and its idea of focusing on what you can control rather than despairing over what you can’t. Covey calls it being  ‘response-able’. It’s an idea that I’d say first originated in Stoic philosophy, particularly in the philosophy of Epictetus, the first line of whose handbook reads ‘Some things are up to us, others are not’. As a scholar and historian, Covey would have known all about Epictetus, and the continued influence of Stoicism on self-help. I would love to read his dissertation on the history of self-help – Brigham Young University should publish it! I reckon it would probably do well.