Home > mint-lounge > features > Stephen R. Covey | Predicting the unpredictability

He’s told the corporate world the seven best habits they can cultivate to be effective, and he’s back to alert the world about the unpredictable nature of the current economic times. Self-help guru and author Stephen R. Covey, in his latest book, Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times, which he has co-authored with Bob Whitman and Breck England, tells you how to hold fort during times of crises. The founder and vice-president of Franklin Covey Inc. explains why some fundamental principles such as trust, honesty and compassion—espoused by one of his “favourite leaders" Mahatma Gandhi—are of paramount importance, and why fear and “low-trust interactions" will always let you down. In an email interview, Covey tells us about the process of writing his latest book, and beyond. Edited excerpts:

Was the recent “unpredictable" economic downturn a trigger for writing this book? Would the strategies you describe in the book be applicable to such a crisis?

Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times: By Stephen R. Covey and Bob Whitman with Breck England, Franklin Covey Publishing, 100 pages, Rs 600.

Think on this: Is there any time when you wouldn’t want to have excellent execution? Is there any time when you wouldn’t want to operate by high trust? Common sense says “no". However, common sense isn’t always common practice. People and organizations often lose sight of foundational principles and the basics for success. And when we do, we lose in the long term. We have to work at being principle-centred and to follow ageless principles, such as the ones outlined in Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times.

One of my most favourite leaders and historical figures is Mahatma Gandhi. He is a wonderful example of what it means to be a principle-centred leader. He had a very clear sense of vision and mission, and he knew how to execute on the goals that mattered most. Gandhi earned trust and never lost high trust.

Because of his powerful leadership, he was able to turn people away from fear and anger, and move them towards constructive, collective engagement. As a result, he helped break the grip of British control over India.

What kind of problems ail most corporations today?

As I travel around the world, I find many organizations are stuck in the Industrial Age model and very few are significantly embracing our new Knowledge Worker model. There are four chronic problems evident in the Industrial Age approach: (1) There is no clear vision or purpose; you ask people what the mission or goals of their organizations, departments or teams are, and you get a vast array of answers; (2) There is heavy bureaucracy and hierarchy, where people are controlled and they don’t experience growth. They are not free to think, make decisions or innovate; (3) People are restrained and their talents are suppressed or underused; and (4) There is low trust. There is little transparency, very little open communication, and people are not involved in meaningful ways. This book addresses these four chronic problems with a simple, yet powerful framework.

How does an organizational head go about “moving the middle"?

When a leader uses this approach you can begin to move the middle because you set up an empowering culture with effective systems and processes, and you instil moral authority, meaning everyone regardless of position, rank or title can contribute and lead in principled ways. Again, Gandhi is an example of moral authority. He had no official title or position. He simply operated by his authentic moral authority.

Of the four factors (failure to execute, crisis of trust, loss of focus and pervasive fear) you’ve described as being most hazardous in unpredictable times, which would you say ailed the global economy the most during the recent crisis?

Low trust is the most hazardous. Everything else flows from this. When you don’t have high trust, you rely on formal authority only and moral authority disappears. You can’t have a culture of empowerment because people are viewed as having to be managed, controlled or supervised. Eventually low trust erodes the capacity for excellent execution, people have low morale and get cynical; you get wasted working on things that aren’t important and people operate from fear.

Your studies on “trust" indicate that trust issues are predominant among most work teams. However, these are based on your studies conducted in the US. How far would you say this reflects the global scenario?

I have experienced the hazards of low trust throughout the world, in small organizations and in large ones. I’ve seen it in the private sector as well as in the public sector.

You mention fear as being one of the biggest paralysing factors. But in times of crisis, isn’t it evident that it will be a driving force?

Fear actually accentuates and propels crisis. In the face of crisis, you have to really get anchored in a principle-centred paradigm. I encourage people and organizations to operate by the four principles in my new book because the more they focus on these fundamentals, the more confident and courageous they will feel.

Any comments on the Indian corporate world, and how would you rate its performance in “unpredictable" times?

India has done very well and is admired by people throughout the world. You have created a course for growth even in these bad economic times. You are involved in diverse global markets and you’ve really understood the needs of many customers. You are also proving that you can produce more for less. This is a commendable achievement. I would also say that there are great opportunities before you in India. The path to greatness lies in moving from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Worker model, where people are truly treated as the highest assets and are empowered to contribute their talents, skills and capabilities with more autonomy. Unleash the potential of people and you unleash greatness.


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