Sunday, February 1, 2009

Leadership is moral authority: Stephen R Covey

There comes a time in every professional’s life when putting in 90-hour weeks at work and devoting the remaining hours to family and sleep makes him reach a point which the Japanese refer to as karoshi (that is, sudden death from excessive work). Somewhere around this point, a good number of overworked professionals around the world, over the last 19 years, have discovered Stephen R Covey’s best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Around the world because the book has been translated in 38 languages and has sold 20 million copies since it published in 1989. Covey’s Seven Habits enjoys a big following in India, which has seen a sharp rise in the recent few years.

Covey is also the co-founder and vice-chairman of FranklinCovey, a global professional services firm with offices in 123 countries.

By his own admission, Covey, who has been recognised by the Time magazine as one of 25 most influential Americans, is a big admirer of Gandhian philosophy. He is coming to India at the end of January 2009 to speak on present-day leadership challenges at several seminars. Speaking to Aanand Pandey over the phone from Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, Covey put forth his views on leadership, moral values, creativity and other less profound matters. Edited excerpts:

Have you been to India before?
Yes, many times. My last visit to India was about two years ago. However, this will be the first time I will be in India in the new economy.

The new economy...?
By new economy I mean the hitherto unseen conflicts that economies are facing around the world.

What impression do you have of the country?
I must tell you that I admire the spirituality of Indians. The other impression I have is the polemical nature of Indians that Amartya Sen referred to so articulately in his book The Argumentative Indian.

It is interesting that you mention spirituality and Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian in the same context. Sen has written in this book that India is wrongly seen as primarily a spiritual culture — it has many other talents as well. It has a strong tradition of science, for instance. Is this not a good time that the world looks at Indians from prisms other than that of spirituality?
I would rather see this point in a way that the inherent spirituality of Indians makes them lean towards areas that require application of knowledge. This is the reason they are moving to build a knowledge-based economy. In fact, with the help of technology that globalised the world, India’s natural leaning towards knowledge has already made it a powerful force in the world.

You mentioned Mahatma Gandhi’s name at one place in The Seven Habits. You have also written in your blogs about lessons one can draw from his life. Where does the Gandhian way of living meet with the philosophy that you advocate?
If you study Gandhi’s life, you will see that he took an inside-out approach. He worked within himself, to begin with. When he pursued his vision of an independent nation, he had a whole culture following his lead. It is worth nothing that he did not hold any formal position after Independence. His authority was moral authority. In the same way that Nelson Mandela’s authority was moral authority that he developed when he was in prison. Likewise, Václav Havel, the Czech playwright, writer and revolutionary, developed his moral authority in prison. Leadership is not a formal authority one exercises over others. It is about developing moral authority within oneself.

You wrote The Seven Habits in 1989. Fifteen years after that, you penned The Eighth Habit: From Seriousness to Greatness. What made you propound the eighth habit? What took you so long to come up with the eighth one?
The seven habits dealt with personal and interpersonal qualities. In the following years, we moved from an industrial age model to an information age model. However, I felt that we were still using the old model of industrial age leadership in the new model. That is how the book The Eighth Habit took birth.

The Eighth Habit helps people in aligning structures and systems of an organisation with moral principles. Even today, most organisations don’t know how to do that. The recent economic meltdown is born out of a failure on the part of companies to align systems with spiritual and moral principles — due to a prevalence of the “what’s-in-it-for-me” type of leadership. It is because of this approach that people were rewarded for selling toxic assets, as a consequence of which the capital systems of these institutions collapsed to the ground.

How would the new school prevent people from selling toxic assets?
You would not reward greed, you would reward teams who come up with synergised, creative solutions.

Speaking of creativity, it is a common refrain that Indians are not as good with creativity as they are with systems and processes. What, according to you, will it take for Indians to come up with creative forces such as, say, a Pixar or a Dupont?
I think this is not only true with India but with many nations in the world today. I recently visited 10 European countries and also Brazil and Korea and found that they all are facing the same problem. They need to unleash the creative energy of their culture. The problem is that they are trying to put new wine in old bottles and there is a risk that the old bottles may break at some point.

The key is in moving away from the old school leadership of top-down demand and control to building a stronger synergistic and spiritual foundation of a culture. It requires a much deeper involvement than what is being shown by today’s leaders.

I want to become the CEO of my company or perhaps the prime minister of my country some day. What would be the most effective habit I can learn that could help me realise my goal?
You will have to begin with becoming a change catalyst. Build your own circle of influence with moral authority so that people would want to follow your leadership. That will be a good beginning.

(by Aanand Pandey/Business Standard)

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