Memories of a self-help Guru

By Andrew Grant

Do ‘Self Help” & “Management” books really work?

When Covey’s breakthrough book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People first hit the bookshelves I was in my mid-twenties. I was sceptical of the ‘self-help’ book genre, especially the apparently superficial promise that it would be possible to become highly proficient in something in a short number of simple steps. I assumed that this was merely a money making tactic. I was finally convinced by others to read Covey’s landmark book, however, and thus cautiously embarked on a road of appreciating how this genre can help people.

Taking a leap 20 years further down the track, and I found myself invited as one of only three high profile international keynote speakersto give a keynote and share the stage with Stephen Covey, at a strategic leadership event. We presented together to almost 2,000 business leaders in the Middle East. To hear of Covey’s death set off one of those lightning flash memory sequences encompassing memories of the first time I discovered this genre, through to memories of meeting Covey and presenting alongside him, and finally to the end of the cycle – hearing of his passing away.

The self help habit

The 7 Habits book alone has sold more than 25 million copies in 38 languages since first publication. What made Covey’s book so successful was that it was one of the most sincere attempts at the time to go much deeper than providing simple rules to follow. It tackled the issue of dealing with ingrained behavioural styles and habits and the values that shape them. If anything, the 7 Habits title didn’t do the concept justice.

As the concept took off, it became a type of corporate religion. Fortune 500 executives lined up for top-dollar seminars where Covey was treated like a rock star. Hillel Italie (Washington Post) summarised the phenomenon by saying that, “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. 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.”

This approach actually had very little to do with business and everything to do with character.

Too much of a good thing?

A quick search on Amazon for the key words ‘self help’ confronts the browser with 447,108 results. It has been calculated that $750 million worth of business books each year have been sold in America alone, but research shows that managers fail to finish four in every five business books they buy. Further research has shown that out of the 43 companies categorised and celebrated as “Excellent” in Tom Peter’s seminal work “In Search of Excellence”, 2 out of 3 lost that top rating within 5 years of publication of the book. In the book “Witch Doctors”, Economist editors Micklethwait and Wooldridge show from their research that much of the advice dispensed by the self help sources is “faddish, riddled with contradictions and jargon, based on simplistic formulas, no more reliable than tribal witch doctors’ medicine.”

The bookstores are crammed with experts trying to sell us success in a few simple steps, but if it was this simple wouldn’t we all be doing it? Wouldn’t we all already be highly successful? So what can the average person do to navigate this minefield of expert advice and glean something useful?

Why self-help strategies don’t always work

In the book ‘Fatland’ Greg Critser reveals that more than a generation’s worth of faddish weight-loss programs have only served only to produce the fattest generation of Americans on record. Knowing what to do and being able to actually do it are both very different things. Just as diets don’t usually work, there are no short cuts in improving your life. Passively reading a book or attending a seminar will not produce all the permanent changes you need to make your life perfect. Only picking out the relevant gems and putting in a lot of hard follow up work will. Inspiration and motivation are only the start, not the entire package needed to improve ones self.

The new generation of self-help books are often written by more qualified social psychologists, neurologists, human behaviour scientists etc who reveal why we have trouble acting on advice and the scientific factors involved shaping in habitual behaviours and how they can be changed. Understanding the roots of our behaviours is a good first step to knowing how to manage them effectively.

Management theory has always alternated between cold mathematics and warm humanism, and the pendulum is currently swinging towards the importance of developing ‘soft’ skills. We will need to know how to integrate the self-help concepts into our leadership styles and behaviours in order to ensure real lasting development. Covey was someone who managed to bridge the gap that can exist between theory and practice, and he should be remembered for his significant contribution to the field. I will certainly always remember the passion and perseverance of a man committed to making a difference in individuals’ lives.

The most helpful self-help advice I have received is from the ancient Serenity Prayer which says that we must learn to accept what we cannot change, to find courage to change what we can change, and to seek wisdom in discerning the difference. If something from the myriad of books, seminars and other self-help input can helps us to action this prayer, then undoubtedly we will be able to make the difference needed for ourselves.

What do you think? Do self help and management books work?

by Andrew Grant

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