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Stephen Covey: reviving the forgotten notion of virtue
The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People sold tens of millions of copies, promoting the old-fashioned message that success begins with virtues.
The Wright Brothers gave us flight, Henry Ford the Model T, and Stephen Covey the 7 Habits. But just as Wilbur and Orville Wright would not have claimed to have invented planes, nor Henry Ford the car, Covey's genius was not inventing something altogether new but popularising the lessons of management theory and making it user-friendly.
His book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic became an international best-seller and spawned successful spin-offs like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, The 8th Habit, and The Leader In Me — How Schools and Parents Around the World Are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time.
Covey died last month, in his 80th year, after a bicycle accident in April. He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Sandra, nine children and 56 grandchildren. He was a devout Mormon and was very active in his church.
The 7 Habits was first published in 1989. William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues followed in 1993, publicising virtues for children. Within a few years Character Strengths and Virtues, by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman restored the notion of virtues to the clinical domain. Seligman’s positive psychology movement surfs the wave which Covey generated.
Airport bookshops are full of self-help books. But there is something special about Covey’s advice which few other consultants and inspirational authors offer.
His intuition of the seven habits is ultimately an argument for Aristotle’s timeless doctrine of virtue, for the fundamental insight that human nature is enriched and fulfilled by strengths of character, habitual behaviours, that empower us to take rational management of our lives.
Let's take a look at his seven habits.
1. Be Proactive. Covey says look inside yourself. Don't be a victim. Change starts inside. We must be good to do good. This is 100% Aristotelian and the underpinning principle of the doctrine of virtue.
2. Begin with the end in mind. Visualise your goals before you act. This repackages Aristotle's final cause. Aristotle would tell us that all rational action is goal-oriented.
3. Put first things first. Consider how you are going to get to where you are going. Plan out your campaign. Be prudent in choosing the means to achieve your goal. Prudence along with justice, fortitude and temperance are the four cardinal virtues also given to us by the great Greek thinkers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
4. Think win/win. This is a re-presentation of the concept of the common good which also dates back to Plato and Aristotle. It is the notion that I am diminished if my actions are not mindful of their impact on you. A truly good action for me will be good for you too, a view that is the complete opposite of the utilitarian principle of “greatest good for the greatest number”, a world in which true goods are opposed and there is no absolute truth.
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This is an extension of the previous point: there is an external truth to be grasped. I am not the arbiter of what is true. This principal is drawn from those same philosophers who emphasised the objectivity of truth. This also refers to the great virtue of justice that respect is unconditional.
6. Synergise. This point is a further refinement of justice. If we are other-centred, if we measure our actions by their impact on other people, we will all be advantaged.
7. Sharpen the saw. We return to the first principle. We must each be the best person that we can be. Change comes from within. We must take full responsibility for our lives.
In some ways Covey builds on the work of another American author, the management consultant Peter Drucker. There are numerous parallels between advice offered in The 7 Habits and Drucker’s 1966 masterpiece The Effective Executive. Drucker also insists on self-knowledge, a clear focus on goals, and prudent decision making. The unspoken principle upon which his work rests is the old axiom “First we make our habits and then our habits make us” -- for better or for worse our habitual behaviours come to comprise our character.
The root of this wisdom ultimately springs from Aristotle’s great book The Nicomachean Ethics which seems to have been composed for his son Nicomachus. Its conclusion is that “happiness is the reward of virtue”. By happiness Aristotle means not just success, but flourishing, the satisfaction of living a fully rational life, with all the side benefits of self-determination.
Covey’s work is a highly innovative and practical application of Aristotelian virtue ethics, a field that has steadily gained ground since the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe revived discussion of virtue in philosophy departments.
It was about time. Since the Enlightenment ethics has been dominated by utilitarianism and deontology. The first is the view that the consequences of an action make it right or wrong; the second obeying the rules makes it right or wrong.
Virtue ethics presents a much more subtle and accurate understanding of human moral life. If, with self-control and courage, we strive to act prudently and justly then we have the wherewithal to pick the best path through any complex dilemma.
Like Aristotle, Drucker and Seligman, Covey's insights reflect a deep common sense intuition about human beings. We are rational creatures capable, albeit in an imperfect way, of taking control of our destinies. We can use our reason to manage ourselves. Through our reason we can build up patterns of habitual behaviours. Ultimately, our success in life is due to our virtues. As he wrote in one of his last books, First Things First:
“It's not enough to have values without vision; you want to be good, but you want to be good for something. On the other hand, vision without values can create a Hitler. An empowering mission statement deals with both character and competence; what you want to be and what you want to do in your life.”
Andrew Mullins is the principal of Wollemi College, in Sydney.
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