When self-help author and business motivational speaker Stephen R. Covey died last week, few would have suspected that his life’s work shared a central concern with that of Karl Marx.
Covey’s work held enormous appeal for business leaders. His numerous bestsellers, starting with “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” in 1989, were purchased in bulk by human-resource departments, given away in management-training programs, and widely read by women and men straddling that late 20th-century temporal abyss that came to be known as the work-life divide. The book sold more than 25 million copies.
Some have suggested that the secret to Covey’s success was that he distilled the best of what he called “the wisdom traditions” into an ecumenical, if not entirely secular, prose. Others argue that Covey’s achievement was to render these traditions in pithy directives.
But few have suggested that Covey’s success actually stemmed from his willingness to take on the big problems that faced his readers: the ways in which the demands of a free-market economy repeatedly ask us to sacrifice our values.
Take Covey’s clarity regarding the distinction between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency, he cautioned, was only useful with objects. Effectiveness, which involved considering another person’s point of view, was for dealing with people.
Marx had expressed a similar concern in the first chapter of “Das Kapital,” in which he lambasted the emerging mid-19th-century economic order for fostering “material relations between persons and social relations between things.” The conditions of waged labor, or work for hire, required that managers treat laborers as things, as instrumental to the processes of production, and expendable when no longer useful.
While Marx counseled global proletarian revolution, Covey argued for a capitalism mitigated by morality.
Effective people, Covey argued, found ways to avoid treating others as though they were objects. Effective managers not only demanded productivity from their employees, but also fostered their “production capacity,” or their ability to continue to be productive. Leaders were those who focused on the cultivation of character rather than the shallow appeal of salesmanship or personality.
Covey was old-fashioned in that he asked his readers to direct their lives according to a moral compass. In fact, the image of a compass became the trademark of his company.
He took seriously the problems created by contemporary capitalism and the challenges people faced in their workplaces. He had made a study of industrial-relations training and self-help literature, earning a doctoral degree in 1976 from Brigham Young University with a dissertation that explored the overlaps between human-relations training and religious education. Although his dissertation is often characterized as a study in organizational management, it’s worth noting that the degree conferred was in religious education.
As a person concerned with religious training, Covey followed a trend as old as the self-help genre: repackaging traditional moral and religious discourses in popular secular prose. His directive that one “think win-win” is a sporty makeover of the Golden Rule. And his adage “begin with the end in mind” -- which asks readers to imagine the speeches at their funerals -- comes straight out of the pages of Cotton Mather’s “Essays to Do Good” in 1710.
Although Covey always claimed his work was secular advice, he made no secret of drawing on spiritual texts for inspiration and advised his readers to do likewise.
Like many of the classics of self-improvement literature -- from Samuel Smiles’s “Self-Help” (1859) to Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” (1952) to M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled” (1978) -- Covey’s books engaged in what sociologist Wendy Simonds has called “shrinking God”: Providing the sort of counsel that people once sought almost exclusively from spiritual texts or religious leaders. Self-help literature offers a hybrid of secular and spiritual advice and consolation, yielding what one might think of as “moral values lite.”
Unlike many popular motivational authors, Covey never went in for the get-rich-quick schemes. Rather, he aimed to foster character, and in so doing, hoped to encourage a kinder, gentler capitalism that remained elusive in the painful era when the terms “downsizing” and “rightsizing” were coined. Despite the dubious effectiveness of individual solutions to problems that are global and systemic, Covey believed in a capitalism that could be redeemed by individual virtue, by better character and stronger morals.
Marx, on the other hand, understood that economic forces are too powerful, and far too important, to be governed by individual conscious.
If our current economy offers any measure, Covey’s call to character building failed to provide a formidable enough antidote to the casino-style capitalism of recent years. Even so, his contribution has been considerable. The perennial popularity of his work is evidence that working people the world over continue to grapple with the contradictions between the values of market competition and more communitarian concerns.
And who knows: At some point, they may just help themselves.
(Micki McGee is the author of “Self-Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life” and teaches in the department of sociology and anthropology at Fordham University. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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