Dr. Covey was quick to admit that few new ideas could be found in his landmark book and the publishing and motivational-speaking empire he built around it. He was preceded in self-help business literature by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., the McKinsey consultants who wrote “In Search of Excellence” (1982). Before them came Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936).
Yet millions of readers turned to Dr. Covey’s books, whose titles included “First Things First,” “The Leader In Me” and “Everyday Greatness.” Fortune 500 executives lined up for top-dollar seminars where Dr. Covey was treated like a rock star, and President Bill Clinton once summoned him to Camp David, but not because Dr. Covey knew something they did not.
Dr. Covey had articulated a philosophy that — however platitudinous it seemed to detractors — transcended business and spoke to the centuries-old American values of self-improvement and self-reliance.
“This is not some kind of Big Bang theory,” Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn said in an interview. Dr. Covey’s achievement, she said, was a practical action plan for business leaders who no longer wished to be “the man in the gray suit” as they headed into the 21st century.
Instead, Koehn said, Dr. Covey challenged readers and listeners to think about their “character and integrity and a sense of one’s place not only relative to . . . one’s professional standing but one’s place in the cosmos.”
Dr. Covey disdained what he called the “flood of trendy philosophies” emanating from the modern workplace and instead offered seven seemingly timeless maxims. They had very little to do with business and everything to do with character.
And, he told the Daily Telegraph in 2004, “there was nothing esoteric or special about why I chose the number seven. . . . It just happened to turn out that way.”
The maxims are:
1. Be proactive.
2. Begin with the end in mind.
3. Put first things first.
4. Think win/win.
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
7. Sharpen the saw — a Benjamin Franklin-esque injunction to seek constantly to improve oneself.
In 2004, as self-help books occupied ever more real estate in bookstores, he amended his 1989 book with “The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness.”
As Americans found their lives increasingly busy and cluttered, Dr. Covey emphasized the differences between tasks that are urgent but unimportant, important but not urgent, and every other permutation of the two.