7 Lessons I Learned From Stephen R. Covey
My first real job out of college was at the Covey Leadership Center. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was just beginning to be a worldwide sensation. Truthfully, when I first started working at the Center I was a bit skeptical of Stephen Covey. Did he really walk the talk? Was he really as wise as his public persona suggested?
Recently a client asked me about my experiences at the Covey Leadership Center. During that conversation I realized that I had learned so much from Stephen, teachings that went above and beyond those found in the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. I would like to share those lessons with you.
- Believe In Yourself And Persevere
What you might not know about the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is that few people embraced the idea when it was in its early stages. Some colleagues even disparaged the concept. But Stephen knew he had something important and he needed to get it out there in the world. As legend has it he took a second mortgage on his house to invest in the book. Even if the mortgage story is apocryphal, we know he believed in Seven Habits so much he risked a great deal even in the face of adversity. He kept with it, refined the concepts, and as they say the rest is history.
- Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
Stephen the leader and educator was serious about his material and tough on himself. He had a deep-seated sense of purpose and spoke with gravitas about the Seven Habits work. But Stephen the man was fun, easy going and humble. He was the first to downplay his brilliance and tell you that he did not create anything new. (Although of course his brilliance was how he put it together and made it accessible.)
A story from Stephen’s home life circulated the Center while I was there, and it really struck me. Apparently when one of his grandkids smeared peanut butter on his head at the dining table–instead of getting uptight about it–Stephen added some jelly and a slice of bread.
At the office we younger employees would sometimes compete to see who could do the best Stephen impression. One day he walked in on one of these contests. Instead of getting angry he insisted we keep going and that he would help rank the performances. Needless to say our performances were a bit more subdued after that. But this was an amazing lesson to me to stay humble and maintain the ability to laugh at yourself. Do not take yourself too seriously no matter how big or important you–or others–think you are.
- Make It About Other People
I find it alienating when certain leaders, speakers and consultants these days make it all about themselves. As individuals and organizations it’s as though we can’t get enough of celebrity or manufactured gurus or rockstars. Ours is the society that created the “selfie stick”, after all. But I still believe that real leadership is about service and humility.
I was in the audience once when Stephen got a standing ovation after a speech. He really rocked it. Off stage he seemed a bit annoyed and pensive. When someone asked him about it he said that he thought he did a bad job. In an effort to contradict that assessment, someone pointed out that he got a standing ovation. He gently said, “All that means is that I made it too much about me and not about them.” Wow, that was powerful to me. To this day I strive to make my work about others. One of my favorite leadership quotes is from Zander and Zander’s Art of Possibility which is: “Leaders make other people powerful.”
- Take Time to Connect to Everyone
At times, Stephen seemed larger than life. Back then he was the guru of gurus. Yet he would always stay and talk to people after presentations and take time with anyone during breaks if possible. Usually it was his personal team that would rush him away after an extended period of time visiting with audience members because he literally needed to catch a flight. I saw him interact with all levels of people at his company. He knew that everyone had a story and everyone had something to offer.
Even when he didn’t really have the time to spare he was always patient and kind. I can remember one time in particular when I grilled him about the origins of a concept in the Seven Habits. Despite being on his way to a meeting he stopped to explain the genesis of the concept. He did not just make time for the “important” people. In this way Stephen sent the message that we were all important.
- Love is a Verb
Seven Habits classes were anchored by Stephen’s cornerstone videos. All of the teachings from those videos are powerful. But the one that has had the greatest impact and has served me the most was this: Stephen shared a story of how an audience member at one of his presentations privately confessed that he and his wife were having marital problems. Stephen remarked “Love her.” The man said that although he wanted to stay together for the kids, the spark had gone. To which Stephen responded “Love her.” The man insisted that Stephen was not really tracking with the situation.
Stephen explained that love is not a noun but a verb. Love is action, service and caring. Love the noun is born out of love the verb. If you want the feeling of love, produce it by loving the person. He suggested one reason a mother loves her newborn immediately after delivery is because that mother has sacrificed and nurtured the baby for nine months. This is a lesson that is so near and dear to me that it guides both my personal and professional life. Love is a verb.
- Depth and Authenticity Ultimately Prevail
Stephen would mesmerize crowds when he spoke. The audience would hang on every word. But stepping back you would notice that Stephen Covey was not actually a superstar speaker nor overly charismatic. He would break many speaking rules. Sometimes he would pull out chapstick in the middle of a presentation in front of thousands of people and apply it to his chapped lips without really knowing it. And yet he moved people.
We live in a world of ersatz personalities that entertain for a moment then fade away. But Stephen and his content was so deep and authentic that his legacy is still strong today and the Seven Habits is still one of the most-read and recommended business books of all time.
- As a Leader, People Are Always Watching You
I have this saying I like to share with clients: “You leave a legacy every day whether you realize it or not.” Whether it is good, bad or in-between, you are leaving your legacy every day. As a leader everyone is watching and taking their cues from you. For example, when I was starting my career at Covey Leadership Center I would pay close attention to Stephen.
I wanted to know if he was the real deal. I wanted to be sure he was walking the talk. And thankfully, Stephen was congruent with his message. You are watched everyday by your employees. And they rarely miss a beat. (And trust me, even if they miss something the company grapevine will keep them apprised of your actions.) Employees want to know if the leader is worth it. Worth the best they can give. If they think they can trust you and that you are looking out for their best interests they most certainly will give their all.
When Stephen died in 2012 he left a hole in many people’s lives, including my own. Yes, he really walked the talk. Today I still use all the principles from The Seven habits of Highly Effective People as well as the lessons I’ve shared in this article. They are foundational to everything I do with business and in life as well.