Stephen Covey: Lessons from an Extraordinary Business Leader

Stephen Covey: Lessons from an Extraordinary Business Leader

Stephen Covey became internationally known and highly regarded because of his work as an author and motivational speaker. With his recent passing, I asked my students–many who are of the millennial generation–if they are familiar with his books and some indicated that they knew his name either because of their parents or an employer who followed his teachings. I was surprised at the number of students who were not familiar with his work.

I never met Stephen Covey and never heard him lecture in person, yet his work was influential for me as an employee, trainer, manager, and educator.  I knew the basics of his background and his academic achievements (MBA from Harvard and Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from BYU), and his work as a professor at BYU for over 20 years. FranklinCovey and the Covey Leadership Centre have Fortune 500 companies on their extensive roster of clients. Yet it was Covey’s message that connected with me and has become interwoven in my work with students and other faculty members.

As I write this post I’m made even more aware of the profound impact Covey’s writings had (and continue to have) on my work. For me, it began when his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, was published in 1989. Some of the key ingredients to his approach for personal development included character, purpose, and self-discipline. That book went on to sell over 25 million copies and was translated into 38 languages. However, for me the number of sales and languages are not important – the message is. The principles Covey wrote about are still relevant today and can be used as a developmental tool for any student that is seeking personal growth.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The habits that Stephen Covey developed in this book can be grouped as follows: Habits 1-3: These are self-mastery habits that involve character ethics. Habits 4-6: These are related to interdependence and personality ethics. Habit 7: This is a self-development habit. Each of these habits are individually summarized below.  

1. Be Proactive

The very first habit involves developing an awareness of how we respond to our external environment and circumstances. Proactive people “recognize that they are ‘response-able.’ They don't blame genetics, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. They know they choose their behavior.” This reminds us of our power of choice – we can choose to respond proactively or reactively. When we accept responsibility for our actions we begin to look inward for solutions to problems, which is also known as personal initiative. As a student, you may not always have the most engaging instructor or perfect class conditions; however, you are responsible for completing your assignments, meeting the deadlines, and following the required procedures.
 
2. Begin with the End in Mind

Another form of self-mastery involves creating a personal mission statement that is tied to long-term goals. Covey explained it in this manner: “Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen” (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). This means that you become action-oriented rather than hoping to make the best of each day.

Habit 2 is focused on “imagination–the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation.” Are you familiar with the phrase “seeing is believing”? See it first in your mind and then believe you can make it possible or become a reality. With this habit, Covey wants us to remember that we are not bound by the past and have an unlimited future. Students are in the process of creating a new future just by starting a degree program as it is transformative in nature and leads to lifelong learning.

3. Put First Things First

This habit involves making time for all of your key responsibilities and that the first things “are those things you, personally, find of most worth.” In order to accomplish this goal, it is imperative to learn how to prioritize tasks and daily duties. Covey taught a method involving quadrants or a chart with four blocks that could be used to sort what needs to be accomplished each day, as a means of establishing priorities. Here are the quadrants: 1. Tasks that are urgent and important, such as deadlines. 2. Urgent and important tasks, such as your relationships. 3. Urgent and not important tasks, which includes activities you participate in on a regular basis. 4. Tasks that are not urgent and not important, and typically include time wasters. If you have established a personal mission statement it will be easy to stay focused on your “first things” or top priorities.

4. Think Win-Win

Moving into interdependence habits, the first one involves learning to collaborate with others. Win-win “sees life as a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. Win-win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions.” This mindset and approach allows everyone who is involved in discussions or teamwork to feel good about their contributions to and participation in the process. Students are also working as a team, which allows them to share their thoughts, experiences, and suggestions, through a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and personalities. A win-win approach involves cooperation (being able to get along) and collaboration (working towards a specific goal together).

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

The key component of this habit is listening, which means paying attention and putting yourself in the other person’s perspective. Most people “listen with the intent to reply, not to understand.” Listening has been called the number one skill for effective communication because “the better we listen, the more others appreciate us and, in return, the more they listen to us.” While many students focus on development of skills necessary for academic success (reading and writing), many forget they also need to work on their listening techniques. Communication is a complex process and the ability to focus on what someone else is saying engages your attention and allows you to develop positive interactions and working relationships with them.

6. Synergize

To synergize is to develop a “habit of creative cooperation. It is teamwork, open-mindedness, and the adventure of finding new solutions to old problems.” Not only is it important to learn to work cooperatively with others and listen to their views, perspectives, and opinions, it is also necessary demonstrate mutual trust and be respectful in your communication with them. You cannot gain cooperation without those elements and it is necessary for the process of problem-solving and innovation. This habit teaches us that a combination of talents produces more results and solutions than can be accomplished individually. It is relevant in the classroom just as much as it is in the workplace. Students gain new perspectives and insights when they learn to synergize with each other.

7. Sharpen the Saw

The last habit involves maintaining balance. Sharpen the Saw “means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.” As I discussed in my post, All Work and No Play: Even College Students Need a Work-Life Balance, having a purpose for your school work and being driven to complete it is certainly necessary if you want to do well in college and complete your degree. However, you cannot keep up a frantic or demanding pace for an extended period of time. At some point you need to think about giving yourself a break. It can bring about a sense of renewal and improved clarity.

With the 20 year anniversary of Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he recorded the following introduction, which provides further highlights of his message:
 

As Covey discussed, learning the 7 Habits is not a quick fix but rather it is a journey, one that will allow you to achieve your personal and professional goals. It may be challenging at times and requires an open mind to the process of self-discovery. He summed it up best when he stated that the 7 Habits are “common sense but not common practice”.
 
An 8th Habit

Stephen Covey published a follow up book in 2004, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. He indicated that this additional habit is necessary for the 21st Century because we are in a Knowledge Worker Age, one that is constantly changing and evolving. The essence of this habit is finding your voice (through your talent, passion, need, and conscience) and inspiring others to find their voice as well.

Stephen Covey can best be remembered for providing a set of principles within these two books that are simple by design, yet have an ability to connect with anyone who is looking for self-renewal tools and techniques. It is applicable for anyone who is seeking a balanced life and improved results, and it is especially relevant and useful for college students who experiencing a time of personal transformation and growth. If you develop these habits, it is very likely you too will become highly effective in all aspects of your life.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

Photo © James Leynse/CORBIS

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