Stephen R. Covey: Business Savant, Self Help Guru, Mormon Theologian

by Matthew Bowman

Today's guest post comes from the talented Mr. Matt Bowman, recent Ph.D. from Georgetown, Professor of Religion at Hampden-Sydney College, author of The Mormon People, and frequent commentator on twentieth-century Mormonism for The New Republic and other publications. 

 Everyone in Utah has a story about Stephen Covey, the best-selling author, business consultant, motivational speaker and Mormon who grew up in the state and lived there most of his life. Since his death a few weeks ago members of his Mormon tribe have been swapping soon-to-be tall tales. One has Covey patiently instructing a media figure whose fame surpassed his own that because she was unmarried she would not be allowed to sleep in the same bedroom as her boyfriend while spending the night in the Covey family cabin. “Those are our family rules, Oprah,” said Steve.   Another places Covey in a board meeting for a research group at Brigham Young University. Having hustled in apologizing for his lateness, Covey took the last seat, which happened to be at the head of the table, and spent the next fifteen minutes effortlessly contributing to a conversation about fundraising and marketing through new media before realizing he had joined the wrong board meeting and quietly slipping out.

 In tandem, the two stories, though like most such tales second-hand and perhaps unreliable, reveal a lot about the complex man Stephen Covey was, and more, about what others thought of him: a business savant, a phenomenally effective self-help guru, and a man who believed that human relationships should first be understood as spiritual relationships. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the 1989 book which built the foundation of his empire, offers what Covey called “habits:” seven new practices for success in relationships, personal management, and life in general.   They include being “proactive,” that is, seeking out opportunity rather than passively waiting for it; understanding that the greatest success comes through cooperation rather than competition; taking time to “sharpen the saw” – that is, to balance life and refresh one’s talents.  The habits are certainly applicable to business, but drilling down into them reveals Covey’s roots in Mormon theology – and on the way, a number of ways of looking at Stephen R. Covey

For instance, we could take him to be the most successful of the new breed of management consultants.  According to historian Christopher McKenna, their ranks exploded in the 1980s and 1990s. By 1995 the American economy groaned under the weight of one consultant for every thirteen salaried managers.  The earliest management consultants, turn of the century Victorians like Frederick Taylor, strode around Ford Motor Company assembly lines with stopwatches and ruthlessly imposed efficiency.  But Seven Habits helped propel consulting in another direction - away from the nuts and bolts mathematics of Taylorism and toward words like “vision,” and “future-based” and reform of culture, personality, and motivation.  As Covey wrote in Seven Habits, “My business is helping organizations develop a powerful team character, a team culture;” far more than simple time management. (2004 edition; 141)    He developed a lucrative career as a motivational speaker and in 1997 joined FranklinQuest, which sold popular day planners, to form “FranklinCovey,” a multimillion dollar company which promises “transformational leadership in people and organizations everywhere through training, consulting, and principle-based programs.”

That phrase “principle-based” was very important to Covey, and it’s why he sometimes expressed surprise that Seven Habits was so often taken as a simply a business handbook.   Following his lead, we might understand Covey as part of a wave of early 90s best-selling self help manuals that promised to help you get your life right if you embraced, internalized and abided by a series of maxims. Covey called them “habits” or “principles;” so did Marianne Williamson, in A Return to Love (1992).  James Redfield of The Celestine Prophecy (1993) called them “insights,” and Robert Fulghum of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1988) called them “lessons.” These philosophies generally involved giving to others instead of demanding from them, learning to love your own flaws, avoiding attachment to material things, and the like – fragments of Eastern religious philosophy loosely translated into American therapeutic culture.  Nonetheless, all of these authors claimed that their particular philosophies were rooted in foundational truths about human nature, and that properly understanding them would enable people to accomplish anything from the mundane: having more fulfilling relationships with friends (Fulghum) to the rather spectacular: transcending this plane of reality and becoming a being of pure energy (Redfield).    

Covey’s work is a rather more hard-headed than that of Williamson or Redfield, icons of the New Age movement – or, at least, Covey understood himself that way.  He spends much of the opening section of Seven Habits lambasting what he calls the “personality ethic,” a way of thinking about human self-improvement that trades in cheap self-actualization and encouraged fixation on image and positive thinking.  Rather, Covey insists that true success comes through grasping what he calls “correct principles,” or “natural laws,” promising that “To the degree that we align ourselves with correct principles, divine endowments will be released within our nature in enabling us to fulfill the measure of our creation.” (319)  Real achievement comes through not simply accepting yourself, but changing yourself.

This language – “the measure of our creation,” “divine endowments,” “correct principles” – is as thoroughly spiritual as anything Marianne Williamson might say, and in fact it is all Mormon jargon, phrases coined for the most part by Joseph Smith.  The difference is in the last way we might understand Stephen Covey, and that is as a Mormon theologian.  Covey’s first book, The Spiritual Roots of Human Relations (1970) is explicitly a work of Mormon theology and was published by the LDS Church-owned Deseret Book.  Seven Habits borrows extensively from it, lifting, at points, entire anecdotes and complete passages.  Covey saw no problem with this; as he wrote in a later book, The Divine Center (1982) also published by Deseret Book, “I have found in speaking to various non-LDS groups in different cultures that we can teach and testify of many gospel principles if we are careful in selecting words which convey our meaning but come from their experience and frame of mind.” (240)

Book CoverIn Seven Habits, Covey took a particular point of Mormon doctrine and constructed a practical system to apply it.  Covey’s PhD, after all, was granted from Brigham Young University in “religious education,” a subject particular to BYU that is closer to training in youth ministry – techniques of motivation, evangelism, and spiritual formation – than it is to religious studies.   He was interested primarily in how Mormon doctrine might explain why people functioned as they did and as a method for how they might function better.  It is no surprise, then, that Covey produced what we might call a management theology: Mormonism brought to bear on particular systems of human relationships, translated into the language of business consulting and self-help, two vernaculars endemic in late twentieth century America.

The foundation of Covey’s theology is the Mormon notion that God’s divine power derives from his understanding and manipulation of the natural laws that govern the universe, and that God has taken as his responsibility guiding and uplifting humanity toward the same capacity.  As humans learn the moral and natural laws undergirding the universe, they progress in knowledge and capacity, and hence become eligible for greater divine light.  The Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of Joseph Smith’s revelations, teaches that “Whatever principle of education we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection,” and further, “There is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world upon which all blessings are predicated – and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:18-21).  Seven Habits’ conception of success closely follows the Doctrine and Covenants here; it declares of the seven habits that “They represent the internalization of correct principles upon which enduring happiness and success are based.”   That internalization “produces happiness, 'the object and design of our existence.’” (23, 48)  Covey’s source for that last quotation is Joseph Smith  Some of Covey’s habits, like the first (being “proactive”) reflect this sense of responsibility; as the Book of Mormon teaches, humans “have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon.” (2 Nephi 2:26). 

It is perhaps no coincidence that Covey’s interpretation of Mormon theology appeared when it did, because Mormonism in the mid to late twentieth century was dominated by a process called “correlation,” which rationalized and streamlined the organization of the church according to the model, the style, and the language of the American corporation.  Dark suits, white shirts, and conservative haircuts appeared on Mormon men; committees, mission statements, and data collection became the basic currency of church organization.  Mormon theology became simplified and essentially ethical, primarily about right behavior, directed toward the self-mastery that Covey marks as the end of human existence.  This form of Mormonism was remarkably optimistic about human potential to achieve, and tended to speak about salvation and blessings as things gained through effort, downplaying traditional Christian notions of sin and grace.

Covey’s work is perhaps the most popular expression of this serious and strenuous variety of Mormonism.  It has proven extraordinarily prevalent in Mormon organizations.  His seven habits are frequently repeated among Mormon missionaries who talk about being proactive or about empathetic communication with prospective converts (fifth habit), among the various committees of the church as they spend time composing mission statements, and even in sermons in the church’s semi-annual General Conference. where Covey-style listmaking and goal-setting are invariably recommended to the flock in pursuit of ever more devoted adherence to the behavioral expectations of the church. 

And yet, Covey’s popularity outside of Mormondom implies that he not only tapped into a powerful strain of Mormon culture, but perhaps more deeply into those particularly American values of which Mormonism is a sometimes particularly vivid manifestation.   Those things Covey shares with Redfield or Williamson or management consultants in New York and California bear testament to that.  He spoke to our national hunger for self-reinvention, a gnawing desire sharpened by a constant fear that if we fail at the American dream it is no one’s fault but our own.  Covey’s management theology teases out a strain of Mormonism which speaks to these twin anxieties.  Further, his success outside his faith teaches us why Mormonism remains the most robust of those religions America has given birth to. 


the narrator said…
"The religious beliefs of Covey are Mormon. They are not Christian.... Churches and religious organizations should seriously reconsider whether it is appropriate to use a personal growth program that is written by someone who believes these false doctrines."
Christopher said…
Nicely done, Matt. The reverence with which most Utahans and most Mormons speak of Covey has always been interesting to me. My father took a class from him at BYU and got to know Covey pretty well. He still speaks of it as one of the highlights of his college life. I think your situating his life and his work within the dual contexts of Mormon theology and during the time of "the new breed of management consultants" helps make sense of his popularity. Good stuff.
DEG said…
Great post, Matt. Enjoyed it thoroughly. We should chat more via FB about comparisons between Covey and his evangelical counterparts.
matt b said…
Thanks, folks. Darren: hit me.
Unknown said…
This is interesting on several levels. My father was a huge Covey fan and made all of us kids read his books and reported them back during our weekly PPIs. It was not a pleasant experience for me on several levels, and so I generally tried to block out each book as I read it.

Later, when I was a mid level manager for an insurance company, I took an internal company class, whose point was to indoctrinate the company's culture to newly hired managers. The required reading was the 7 minute manager series, and then there were a number of other titles to choose from to read and then share what we learned from the rest of the book with the rest of the class. Even though there were ten choices, I was the only one who didn't read 7 Habits. It was very interesting to hear my fellow students, none of who were LDS, report on what they learned from reading it.

The most interesting thing I took away from the class, beyond the expectations on how to manage people in our departments in the company's chosen culture, was the wildly different interpretations of what Covey is saying. A Buddhist member of the class saw him as teaching how to apply "Active Buddhism," while laying out the steps that can lead to moral and trandscendent experiences within the workplace. Another member in the class who considered herself to be a humanist, with Agnostic tendencies, saw a way of managing people and conducting business WITHOUT having religion enter the workplace. (I always wondered whether Covey would have agreed with her.)

The most interesting presentation came from a man who was the part-time Youth Minister at a Baptist church, even though he was Methodist. He saw Covey's work as An overarching Christian implementation in business practice.

Maybe Covey's greatest achievement was that everyone could see their best selves in his work.

Anonymous said…
Thank you for the piece. It is interesting that Covey, and other who have followed in his footsteps are lauded for taking religious tenets and marketing them to the world as answers to to grow business and create more capital. From a faith perspective, especially one such as Mormonism, this seems heretical. Ironically, Covey held a quasi-apostolic title among members of Church and his influence remains strong to this day.
Unknown said…
Covey's work reflects some Mormons' desire to be relevant in the world. Given that much of spiritual mormonism has not found root in American society--a society many Mormons believe to be almost as sacred as heaven--some like Covey, Romney, Glen Beck, etc. try to "proselyte" inconspicuously. There are many Mormons who don't like this type of approach and so don't see Covey as the quasi-apostle that some do. He was probably a good man who sought to make Mormonism relevant. But the 7 habits are not the core of the religious principles that Joseph founded.

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