Stephen R. Covey

Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems, London: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

5 Stars

The 3rd Alternative, Stephen Covey’s last book — actually published in the very year of his death — is perhaps more than this great man could give. It is more, much more than a ‘business’ book, as the vision of leadership it teaches and embodies surpasses by far the realm of business. It widely covers the adjoining fields of social leadership, nonprofit leadership and political leadership.

This book that I found only very recently, and to my surprise, in a book store in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is an easier read than its predecessor, The 8th Habit. Covey’s ideas are presented in fluent style in this book, which has really touched my heart. It is far less schoolmasterly than the books on effectiveness and leadership in a stricter sense of the word. But like those others, it is richly illustrated with comprehensive graphics, so typical for all of Covey’s books.

And what I normally don’t do in book reviews, for one time I will do it, presenting here some of the many praises this book has received. Needless to add that I quote them here as they reflect my own deep impression of the book:

“In this book, Covey reaches out way beyond his familiar domain, to the universe, and has come up with a social vaccine capable of addressing if not resolving the existential agonies and angst that we all face as individuals, as well as the organizations and societies that we work and live in. In this Olympiad vault, Covey has written his most ambitious and hopeful book, in my own view — a masterpiece to benefit all of us doing our best to live in peace and justice in this messy world.”

— Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of Southern California, and author of the memoir Still Surprised

“Even in our conflicted times, now and again we catch a glimpse of the better thing. Dr. Covey shows us how to seek that better thing and transcend our deepest disputes.”

— Archbishop Desmond Tutu

“In The 3rd Alternative, Dr. Covey inspires us to think differently about solving problems than we ever have before. We must set aside our differences, including our boundaries, languages, economics, politics and cultures and work hand in hand together to create solutions which are greater than the problems we now face.”

— Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner 2006

We know that a picture goes a long way and explains contextual meaning more easily than verbal language does. This is the reason I will reproduce two of these graphics here in this review, as I did in the review of The 8th Habit, and with the specific copyright argument that those few graphics are published in the pages of the books provided by Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature.

As I mentioned briefly already, the 3rd Alternative Leadership and Conflict Resolution Approach was developed as an extension of the 6th Habit: Synergy. I personally see the emphasis more on the conflict resolution function this approach facilitates and believe that the methods taught in The 8th Habit are largely sufficient for leadership purposes in general. But as life in general, and human relations in particular, always engender problematic situations, we can easily see that we need to be prepared ‘for a leak in the boat’ — as the I Ching expresses it. For the Chinese executive, preparedness is crucial for good and effective leadership.

The present book shows how extensively Dr. Covey has learnt both from Middle Eastern cultures, from African traditions, and from the wisdom traditions of the Far East. The book abounds of examples that show how cross-culturally Covey has worked perhaps all his life, but especially in his later years.

It is the examples of outstanding human achievement that captured me throughout this book. The author first presents the basic problem in simple terms; it becomes evident when you read these quotes that this is not a ‘business book’ in the narrow sense, but shows how business and life are actually interconnected, and that in a complex world we are today at pains to learn the greater vision that we need to develop in order to master our lives and run our businesses:

Perhaps you’re in a marriage that started off great, but now you can barely stand each other. You may have estranged relationships with your parents, siblings, or children. It could be that you feel overwhelmed and out of balance at work, always trying to do more with less. Or maybe, like so many others, you are tired of our litigious society, in which people are so quick to sue you don’t dare make a move. We worry about crime and its drag on our society. We see politicians going at it and getting nowhere. We watch the news at night and lose hope that the perpetual conflicts between people and nations will ever be resolved. /1

Most conflicts have two sides. We are used to thinking in terms of ‘my team’ against ‘your team.’ My team is good, your team is bad, or at least ‘less good.’ My team is right and just; your team is wrong and perhaps even unjust. My motives are pure; yours are mixed at best. It’s my party, my team, my country, my child, my company, my opinion, my side against yours. I each case, there are 2 Alternatives. /8

The scope of this book is huge, and reading it you will experiences real surprises, things, events and changes in relationships that seem almost incredible. When we learn in what manyfold enterprises Covey was involved, we may get a glimpse how he was able to build such a wealth of experiences. He recounts that he belongs to a leadership group seeking to build a better relationship between the West and the Islamic community, that it includes a former U.S. secretary of state, prominent imams and rabbis, global business leaders and experts on conflict resolution. He also relates that his firm FranklinCovey surveyed people around the world to find out what their top challenges were personally, on the job, and in the world at large:

It was not a representative sample: we just wanted to find out what different people had to say. The 7,834 people who responded were from every continent and from every level of every kind of organization. /4

The survey could identify three levels where those challenges manifested:

In the personal lives

The tenor here was overwork, dissatisfaction and relational problems, as well as burnout and the neglect of the family.

On the job

The tenor here was the fear of losing one’s job in the global game and the vain search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless industry.

In the world

Here the tenor was the threat of war, terrorism, poverty and the destruction of the environment, as well as lack of employment, poor education and lack of infrastructure.

Now, when he begins to outline the solution of the 3rd Alternative, the higher octave of the synergy principle as Habit 6 of the 7 Habits, Covey teaches it as a 3-step process:

— Paradigm 1: I See Myself

The first paradigm is about seeing myself as a unique human being capable of independent judgment and action. /25

— Paradigm 2: I See You

The second paradigm is about seeing others as people instead of things. /33

— Paradigm 3: I Seek You Out

This paradigm is about deliberately seeking out conflicting views instead of avoiding or defending yourself against them. /40

— Paradigm 4: I Synergize With You

The last paradigm is about going for a solution that’s better than anyone has thought of before, rather than getting caught up in the cycle of attacking one another. /59

So far, I think this is quite easy to understand. The question is only how, in real life, we are able to make such a quantum leap, to go that much out of our way and toward another, and to overcome our own conditioning? There is no doubt that most of us have been conditioned to 2-Alternative Thinking, to use Covey’s terminology.

Regarding the first paradigm, I See Myself, Covey points out that we can ‘think about what we think’ in the sense that we can challenge our common assumptions, which is something only we human beings can do because we are self-aware. He writes:

A 2-Alternative thinker plays the role of the put-open protagonist locked in combat with the antagonist. But there is a third voice in the story that is neither the hero nor the villain. This is the voice that tells the story. If we are truly self-aware, we realize that we are not just characters in our own story but also the narrator. We are not just written, we are the writer, too. /31

He goes on to explain that our stories are always embedded in a larger family, societal or even cultural context and that we need to see and understand this interconnectedness in order to be able to surpass the strict duality of the ‘two alternatives.’

Regarding the second paradigm, I See You, I found it highly interesting how Covey came to find this idea realized in the Bantu wisdom of Africa. It is called Ubuntu and means something like ‘personhood’ — or interdependence between people. Even more so, it means that we can only accurately know ourselves when we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of another person. Thus, we really need others in order to recognize who we truly — and fully — are!

Covey explains that the spirit of Ubuntu is essential to 3rd Alternative thinking and that it means more than just having respect for all sentient beings. It means to overcome the dehumanizing influence of our machine age and recognize our own humanity in the eyes of another, or a whole group of people:

This dehumanizing of others — what we often refer to as stereotyping — starts from a deep insecurity within the self. This is also where conflict begins. Psychologists know that most of us tend to remember negative things about others more than positive things. /36

He quotes Oscar Ybarra, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, who found out that when people begin with a healthy, realistic regard for themselves, the negative memories of others fade away. This is how indeed seeing myself, I can come to see the other!

Regarding the third paradigm, I Seek You Out, Covey relates that when we deliberately seek others out for their share of truth, we can reach insights and conclusions that we never thought were possible. This is in his own words a ‘radical shift in thinking’ and I agree, for I myself was never before seeing conflict as a potential resource for new insights. He points out that while the technique of negotiation tries to find points for agreement, the focus on conflict leads us to exploring and capitalizing on the differences:

It’s not only natural, but essential for people to have different opinions. I’ve said many times over the years that if two people have the same opinion, one of them is unnecessary. A world without difference would be a world of sameness where no progress is possible. /42

We can get there only if we break our inner walls of opinion and the many political clichés put into our mind by the mass media. The next step, then, is what he calls The Talking Stick, which is another metaphor borrowed from native peoples, this time from North American natives, which is a symbol for peaceful communication. So long as the speaker holds the stick in hand, no one may interrupt him; but it also means that the speaker assumes the full responsibility for what he is saying and how he is saying it.

What is valid for the speaker is also valid for the listener. They need to not only listen, but listen empathically.

Regarding the forth paradigm, I Synergize With You, Stephen Covey points out that synergy is a process that passes through 4 distinct stages:

— Ask the 3rd Alternative Question

— Define the Criteria of Success

— Create 3rd Alternatives

— Arrive at Synergy or 3rd Alternative

Asking the 3rd Alternative questions essentially means to ask if the other is willing for a solution that is better than any of both have come up with yet? Then a clear vision and a set of criteria needs to be put on the table that show the other how a successful outcome of the conflict can be brought about. Once this criteria are found and defined, the two parties will brainstorm, create scenarios and envision new frameworks, while suspending judgment. Once the 3rd Alternative, the synergistic solution has been found, it needs to be elaborated further to work out a real solution of the conflictual situation or relationship.

After explaining the principles of going for the 3rd Alternative and build synergy instead of being caught in either-or solutions, Covey then systematically walks the reader through all areas of life and explains with many practical examples how to apply this concept in daily life.

The areas he covers are Work, Home, School, the Law Profession, Society, and the World. Being myself a jurist, I would like to report here some examples from the world of law, and how the concepts of this book can be successfully applied to find new solutions to legal impasses and conflicts.

Interestingly, as a young lawyer, I had basically the same ideas for peaceful conflict resolution as Justice Larry M. Boyle with whom Dr. Covey has co-authored this part of the book (Chapter 6, 247–277). When I voiced my opinions, however, I was being told by various people that I was lacking out on the ‘necessary aggressiveness’ a lawyer must have for being successful in this profession. As Larry Boyle relates in these interesting pages, this is chiefly true; however it’s exactly this fierce aggressiveness embedded in litigation that causes bad health not only for all parties involved — and here especially the lawyers themselves — but that also causes the worst of impasses, if not rampant injustice, that one can think of.

The chapter starts recounting a case of the kind every jurist is all-too-familiar with. I quote this here in its entirety because it can serve as an infamous example of how easily justice can turn into the most flagrant injustice, and even more so, into the long-term destruction of valuable relationships between people and within communities:

In the little English village of Breedon-on-the-Hill, the annual pantomime brought all the townspeople together for a night of silly songs and fancy-dress theatricals. It took weeks to prepare, and everybody loved watching their neighbors make fools of themselves. The tradition was to hold the panto in the school hall, built decades before largely through donations from the village. /247

But the tradition abruptly ended when a new headmistress took over the school, involved new safety codes, and suggested staging the panto elsewhere. The town balked, and she raised the fee for the use of the hall to £800, which made everyone gasp. Nobody could pay that kind of money. So they demanded the local council give them free access to the hall, but the council barred them,and for the first time in half a century, no panto was held in Breedon. /247–248

Soon the quarrel went to court. The villagers protested the fee and the new Criminal Records Bureau checks that had to be done on anyone who entered the school buildings. Years before, they had paid £3000 toward the construction of the hall and felt entitled to use it free of charge outside school hours without being investigated like criminals. /248

School officials argued that the expense of maintaining the hall had shot up and that they couldn’t afford to host the panto any longer; the request was ‘unreasonable and unworkable’. They couldn’t bear up under the ‘massive exercise in form-filling’ required on every villager who came into the hall. /Id.

After seven years and $6.7 million in fees, the lawsuit worked its way through the High Court of England, where the Lord Chief Justice finally decided it — against the people of Breedon. He also ordered them to pay the crushing costs. The headmistress and the vicar of the parish have long since resigned over the tension. Old friends no longer speak. Relationships between town and council are irretrievably broken. And the villa pantomime, where foolishness was once a source of fun, is gone for good. /Id.

The authors report that such stories are endless. They report another case, in which a young volunteer with Teach for America was sending a misbehaving boy out of class, the parents sued the school for $20 million. In still another case, a man sued his dry cleaner for $67 million for losing his pants. The authors conclude:

No one knows how much money is awarded in judgments each year — the number would be astronomical — but in the United States alone, billable hours for attorneys add up to $71 billion. /249

The authors blame the adversarial mindset which is inherent in our justice system, which they say qualifies as an infamous example of 2-Alternative thinking that became institutionalized. They quote from a book entitled ‘On Being a Happy, Healthy and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession’, by Patrick J. Schiltz who wrote about lawyers:

People who are this unhealthy — people who suffer from depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, and suicide to this extent — are almost by definition unhappy. It should not be surprising, then, that lawyers are indeed unhappy, nor should it be surprising that the source of their unhappiness seems to be the one thing that they have in common: their work as lawyers. /251

Then, the authors go on to systematically apply 3rd Alternative thinking to the way legal conflict — which is always human conflict — can be solved in different ways, namely by carefully preparing the stage for synergistic solutions.

I will end this extensive review here in high spirits about this precious book, and in the hope that it will inspire many people, and that it will reach especially those who are torn up in the claws of either-or thinking with all the unhealthy and often also unethical consequences it implies.


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