Of the millions who have traveled on New York City’s subways, perhaps none had as transformative a journey — for himself and, later, for millions around the world — as Stephen R. Covey did one Sunday morning decades ago.
“Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it,” the distraught father replied. “We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
As recounted in “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People,” the book that catapulted an obscure Brigham Young University educator to global fame, Mr. Covey experienced a “paradigm shift.” His focus was no longer on a disrupted train ride, but whether he could be of any assistance to people who had just gone through one of life’s toughest experiences.
Using examples as simple and profound as this one, Mr. Covey, who passed away July 16 at the age of 79, did more than pull at heartstrings. He changed the way people and organizations looked at their work, their “mission,” if you will, and even the very nature of their lives.
“Begin with the end in mind” was one of Mr. Covey’s “habits,” and one sorely overlooked in so many ventures, it seems. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” Mr. Covey counseled and, again, most of us don’t have to look too far to see a lack of such empathetic thinking.
A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mr. Covey was unabashed in his beliefs, but said the “7 Habits” were derived from “natural laws” common to all the world’s great religions and theories. Hearing him in person, which I was fortunate enough to do five years ago, one didn’t hear the hectoring of a zealot, but rather the encouragement of a friend. That same tone would be found one-on-one, as I discovered when interviewing him two years later for The Washington Times.
Of those “7 Habits,” one of Mr. Covey’s was perhaps the most quizzical to many: “Sharpen the saw,” he urged, and that meant the Franklin Covey retail stores that populated many malls would close on Sundays — never mind folks were ready to shop on that day. (Another great American business, Chick-fil-A, also shutters its doors on Sunday, for similar reasons.)
That saw-sharpening meant time for personal renewal, something the wonks of Washington might scoff at. Mr. Covey was gently dogmatic: “Living a life in balance means taking the necessary time to renew yourself. … Or you can totally burn yourself out by overdoing everything,” he wrote on his personal website, Stephenrcovey.com.
Mr. Covey’s greatest paradigm shift was, understandably, his own. Working on his doctoral thesis at Brigham Young University, where he was also a professor, he reviewed nearly two centuries of American “success literature,” a genre that traces its roots back to Ben Franklin’s “Autobiography.” Where Franklin noted a list of positive virtues he wanted to cultivate, Dale Carnegie, in the 1930s, shifted to developing the kind of pleasing personality guaranteed to “Win Friends and Influence People.” Carnegie rewrote the rules, but there was one problem: For every sales-office success story, there were plenty of real-life Willie Lomans, to whom attention was not being paid.
The “7 Habits” book changed all that: Mr. Covey shifted the focus from accomplishment to meaning and, specifically, having a balanced life along with that meaning. Instead of randomly jamming everything into one’s basket, Mr. Covey urged readers to put “first things first,” and the rest would fit in.
The changes in corporate attitudes attributable to Stephen R. Covey’s work may never be fully documented, the numbers of lives changed might not be calculable. But in walking back Carnegie’s veneer of affability, Mr. Covey injected a dose of realism that’s worth celebrating in an age of blurred lines between an understanding of how business works and how some people imagine it works.
Three days before Mr. Covey died, President Obama declared successful entrepreneurs weren’t the captains of their fates: “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own,” Mr. Obama told supporters.
Stephen R. Covey, who leveraged everything he owned to start his business 30 years ago, and who then saw it succeed beyond his wildest expectations, knew better. He got there with the help of family and co-workers, but also because he began with the end in mind.
Mark A. Kellner has contributed to The Washington Times since 1991.