Steven Covey and the Guru Industry

The Economist trashed Steven Covey last week for his self-promoting, platitudinous approach to management.  It accused him of essentially of “presenting stale ideas as breathtaking breakthroughs.” (See, “The Three Habits of Highly Irritating Management Gurus,” The Economist, May 22, 2009.)  Noting that his books have sold in the millions worldwide, and that his consulting firm, “FranklinCovey claims 75% of Fortune 500 companies as clients, the article highlights the widespread appetite for the cliches of self-help in business.

But why is management so hooked on this approach?  How did self-improvement become such a pillar of contemporary management theory?

The attractive but hidden promise is that it reduces the problems of management to seemingly managable proportions:  it’s all about you. Forget about the complexities of dynamic systems, overlapping groups, and multiple relationships.  Don’t worry about rapidly changing markets or the obsolence of key strategies.  All that managers are required to deal with on a constant basis are problems of self-understanding.  The only person you really have to worry about is yourself.  The span of control is always one.

Moreover, the lists of core compentencies are easy to remember.  Numbered “habits” with catchy names provide a quick diagnostic guide to answers for whatever problem you are up against.

The inspirational veneer that repelled The Economist masks a shallow set of principles, but the companies that sign up for this “help” may well understand that these principles are useful primarily for personal motivation, not serious management. Almost surely, they do not put all their eggs in the self-help basket.  If so many companies are doing it, they wouldn’t want to create the impression that they don’t care about their employees’ attitudes.

But the really cruel trick in this is that self-help is extraordinarily difficult to achieve.  Habits are deeply ingrained, extraordinarily hard to change.  Sometimes they are also hard to see.  Because they are usually grounded in adaptations to past realities, they linger in our minds with strong emotional residues.  We often experience them as ways we need to act.

As a result, people who try to improve themselves often end up failing.  They feel frustrated at their lack of success, and, of course, they blame themselves, not the guru who inspired them or the misguided program they keep trying to implement.

Meanwhile the business of self help goes on and on.  Who dares to say the emperor has no clothes?