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Still Learning from Stephen Covey

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Author Stephen Covey Author Stephen Covey Gregory Bull/AP file photo

Like many others, I was surprised and saddened to learn of the passing this week of Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Saddened but also grateful for his life and work. Since it was first released in 1989, I’ve probably read The Seven Habits all the way through at least half a dozen times. I’ve dipped in and out of it for insights and ideas countless times. There was a time in my life when I practically had the book memorized and could tell you what page specific passages were on.

When you spend that much time with a book, it has a way of seeping into you. Most aspects of my life including my approach to marriage, parenting and leadership coaching have been influenced by The Seven Habits. When I step back and look at my own book, The Next Level, it clearly reflects what I learned from Covey.

The fact is that even though I don’t spend as much time with his book as I used to, I’m still learning from Stephen Covey. The principles that he outlined in The Seven Habits are timeless, relatively easy to explain and very challenging to fully implement. It’s a lifelong process that, on good days, I learn a lot from in the real time practice of trying to live the habits.

If you’re a devotee of Covey’s book and work, you no doubt have lessons of your own. I would love for you to share them here with a comment. In the meantime, here are some of the things I’m still learning from Stephen Covey:

 

Begin with the End in Mind: This is Covey’s second habit and, for me it’s easier to do in the short run than the long run. If you’ve ever worked with me as your coach or have read my blog for any length of time, you know that my favorite opening question is some version of “What are you trying to accomplish?” I’ve been asking that question of myself and others for so long that I’d forgotten until this week that it was likely inspired by Covey. Like a lot of the people I work with, I find I’m more adept at answering that question for short to medium term goals. I’m getting better on beginning with the end in mind for longer term goals but still have work to do there. By their nature, longer term goals are usually less clear and the path to achieving them is less certain. I’m still learning how to articulate them and then reverse engineer back from those goals in bite size chunks that are actionable in the short run.

Put First Things First: Covey’s chapter on this habit introduced the now conventional wisdom framework of distinguishing between urgent and important tasks. With e-mail overload and 24/7 connectivity via smartphone, the world is a lot different today than it was when The Seven Habits was first published in 1989. Technology makes it much easier for others to impose their urgencies upon you today than 23 years ago. Like so many other professionals these days, I struggle with the balance between the urgent and the important. Years ago, Covey wrote that it’s easy to say no when there’s a deeper yes burning within. He wrote those words before the email era but I think they have an even deeper application today. On my good days, they serve as a guide to the highest and best use of my time.

Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood: A few years ago I learned that this habit was first articulated by St. Francis of Assisi. Props to Stephen Covey for bringing it back to modern day attention. My journey with this habit has focused on two primary behaviors – questioning and listening. Over time, I’ve learned that the best questions are open ended, without judgment and encourage reflection. I don’t hit those standards all the time, but I don’t think I was even coming close before I read and absorbed The Seven Habits. As for listening, it’s become easier on the one hand and harder on the other. The good news is that experience and conscious effort have helped me learn to listen more to what is said and how it’s said as well as what is not said. On the other hand, there are more distractions to deep listening than ever. The habit I’m still learning is to turn the distractions off before the conversation begins.

I’ll wrap things up now so this doesn’t become a 5,000 word post. Suffice it to say, I’ve learned and am still learning a lot from Stephen Covey. I’m grateful for his life and work.

What about you? If you’ve read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, what did you learn from it that has influenced you?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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