Stephen Covey (1932-2012), the business self-improvement master of our times, died last week. He authored The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, a book that has sold over 6 million copies.
In addition to having read several of Covey’s books, I saw him present at a Lessons of Leadership conference. Here are the two most important take-always from his body of work:
Lesson 1: Point Your Compass Towards True North
In his book First Things First, he differentiated between the clock and the compass. The clock represents our commitments, appointments and activities. In contrast, the compass represents our vision, values and direction. Angst occurs when there is a gap between what we do, and what is most important in our lives.
This distinction painfully struck home. Once, I was scheduled to attend a Board meeting during a day when my 4-year old son had to undergo major surgery. I elected to attend the Board meeting, rationalizing my decision by telling myself that my wife and father-in-law were at the hospital.
Although the surgery was successful, I regret my decision, realizing that I did not put First Things First, which is to be there for my son. Had I spoken up, the Board meeting could have been delayed.
Lesson 2: Invest in the Goose That Lays the Golden Egg
This lesson is based on one of Aesop’s fables. A farmer and his wife had a goose that laid a golden egg every day. They assumed that the goose had a great nugget of gold in its inside, so they killed it. They discovered that the goose was no different from other geese. Instead of becoming rich, the coupled deprived themselves of the gain of which they were assured day by day.
Covey argued that we must invest energy in increasing our productivity. Using the metaphor of a saw, he suggested that we must sharpen the saw, otherwise the blade becomes dull. And a dull blade results in reduced output.
There are many ways of nurturing the goose. In a previous post, I described how playing bridge enhances one’s memory and mathematical skills. Is it surprising that Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are avid players? In tennis, I know that if I fail to do strengthening exercises, pulled muscles are the end result. My physical therapist can attest to that!
In terms of business, at Frito Lay’s Orlando, Florida plant , the largest inventory investment is not in the potatoes, corn oil and salt seasonings that are needed to make the company’s snack products. Rather, the biggest inventory item is in parts that are required to maintain the expensive machinery. Management knows that the costs of production downtime far outweigh the investments in inventory that are necessary to keep the machines in good condition.
Some of Covey’s notions are commonsensical—they will not put him at the table with the pantheon of self-improvement thought-leaders. For example, his 7 habits include advocating “being proactive; begin with the end in mind; think win-win, etc.”
But the ideas of nurturing the Goose That Lays the Golden Egg, and setting ones compass on true north, will stand the test of time.