Stephen M. R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust was a well-titled, decently-written tome of the necessity of having mutual trust in or across organizations in order to get things done effectively. In my opinion, he took a topic which was worth exploring and overdid it more than a bit; packing about 100 pages of material into almost 300. Of course, 100 pages wouldn’t have made much of a book, so expansion was practically a given.
In the process of expanding the thinking Covey rested his hypothesis on a slough of contemporary figures, quoting them or using the instances trust figured prominently in their decision-making or methodology. As one of my colleagues pointed out when he reviewed the first performance report I ever wrote, the problem with quoting contemporaries is that the target audience may reject your quote (and therefore the performance report) because they do not like the author of the quote. There were plenty of individuals quoted. More than a few of them seemed to be from what I imagine Covey’s circle of country-club affiliates would look like. Naturally I liked some of them: Warren Bennis, G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Reagan, Jack Welch, and more than a few others.
However, there were individuals mentioned or quoted that I did not particularly like; perhaps it was the “luck” of timing and perhaps there was nothing else to be done to illustrate some of the points. I considered mentioning them specifically, but to what end? Let’s just say that at the time they were mentioned or quoted, maybe within a year or two after publication of the book, I might have read them and said “Right on!” Given plenty of elapsed time since The Speed of Trust‘s publication in 2006, hindsight made them into anathema. They rather spoiled the entire book for me and I’ve found myself recommending against the book whenever it has come up in conversation.
I’ll make a couple exceptions and take some specific umbrage at a couple items. The first bad example was a quote on page 11 of the Free Press softcover edition that, as mentioned above, would have evoked a “Right on!” from me up until late 2011. “Whether you’re on a sports team, in an office or a member of a family, if you can’t trust one another there’s going to be trouble.” That was true enough in 2006 or any other year; it was timeless advice, actually. The author of the quote? Former (and now late) Penn State Head Football Coach Joe Paterno, who had apparently extended a bit too much trust to assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, if the national media is to be believed. It was a risk, quoting a live individual; the jury was still out on the rest of their lives, as it were. In time perhaps Joe Paterno’s formidable record will live on and the tarnish blotched onto his record by Jerry Sandusky will abate. Perhaps I just was unlucky to read the book and the quote at the wrong time. But unfortunately for Covey, I read it when I read it, so to say. Timing is everything! So the lesson “Stick to timeless quotations and examples as much as possible” should be the operative advice. But then if one’s aim is for a contemporary work that is ‘relevant’ to us ‘today,’ one must then take risks such as this.
The second issue I’ll discuss occurred in pages 215-216 of my edition. In a discussion of the behavior “Making commitments and keeping them,” Covey portrayed an antithesis: “However, the counterfeit of this behavior is to make commitments that are so vague or elusive that nobody can pin you down, or even worse, to be so afraid of breaking commitments that you don’t even make any in the first place.” Good advice, no?
He continued and brought in his unfortunate example, that of Napoleon Bonaparte. “That’s following Napoleon Bonaparte’s line of reasoning: ‘The best way to keep one’s word is not to give it.’ But this kind of approach clearly lacks courage and promise, and it certainly won’t work in today’s global economy. . . .”
I just can’t really leave aside that as a young Lieutenant of artillery Napoleon watched the storming of the Bastille and went on to conquer most of continental Europe militarily. That simple sentence, chronologically from the 1789 Bastille through the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, was built on a type of courage Covey just does not have. If the premise had been stated to indicate Napoleon’s courage was founded on misplaced convictions, I would have agreed with that. But that’s not what Covey indicated. Covey compared apples to engine blocks.
Covey then drove a final nail into his own literary coffin by writing “. . . this approach didn’t really work for Napoleon. . . .” Okay, perhaps many of the leaders of pre-Congress of Vienna Europe didn’t trust Napoleon; it hardly mattered when he ground them under the hooves of his cavalry! And trust? An army whose size had not been seen on the Continent since the time of the Roman Empire (if even then) marched into Russia in 1812. Perhaps Napoleon failed their trust by losing most of them to the Russian winter weather. I doubt that Napoleon’s loss had much to do with his withholding commitments, though. This quandary demonstrated a principle of authorship: When you’re writing about something outside your area of expertise, be doubly-diligent you have the facts correct and that the facts support your hypothesis!
One very minor quibble with The Speed of Trust was that the end-notes only covered the direct quotations listed throughout the book, and these were in a non-standard format. This wasn’t an academic work, so it wasn’t required to be standardized. There wasn’t really a requirement for end-notes at all. It might have made the work a bit more bearable had it been adequately documented. As written, Covey set himself up as the authority on all matters and subjects in the text, and in my opinion he got a little bit of it wrong and several items died from the test of time. Had he written it using a more academic approach, I think he would have insulated himself a little bit as the author from the items in the book that failed. Since he didn’t give himself the academic insulation, the risk he took trying to appear authoritative largely failed due to the number of unfortunate examples. I’ll have significant difficulty treating anything else written by Stephen M. R. Covey as authoritative from this point forward.
One of my colleagues with whom I discussed the work expressed disdain for the entire genre of textbooks to which The Speed of Trust belongs, explaining “I don’t like reading those ‘Self-help’ books.” That struck me as odd, I’d never heard of books like The Speed of Trust referred to as ‘Self-help.’ Personally I prefer to think of books like this as approaches to topics like leadership from various angles. There’s the military angle, the business angle, the non-profit angle, the political angle, the little-league angle, to name just a few. It’s kind of like the difference between the schools of thought about international relations: There are the realist schools, the constructionist schools, and the liberalist schools; they’re different ways of looking at the same types of problems or challenges. So I’ll leave the reader with my opinion that your best bet is to check this book out from the library if you’re interested in reading it and take it for a decent but not excellent treatise on trust in the workplace. Don’t spend too much time with it, though. If I averaged out my time into an hourly rate (and added the cost of the book) and calculated the cost incurred to read The Speed of Trust, I can’t really say with any honesty it was worth the expense. If I find out I’m wrong later on, I’ll try to update this post.