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The Highly Effective Person

During the Clinton administration, Stephen R. Covey heard several family members criticizing the president’s policies.

Stephen R. Covey family photos

“What do you think?” one of them asked him. “Certainly you don’t think he’s doing a good job as president.”

Stephen’s answer: “I don’t want to criticize him, because I never know if I’ll have a chance to influence him. I don’t want to be a hypocrite if he ever needs my help.”

Two months later, while enjoying the Christmas holiday with his family, Stephen received an unexpected call. After a few moments on the phone Stephen turned sheet white, stood up, and said, “Mr. President, I appreciate talking to you.”

“I just read 7 Habits twice,” President Clinton relayed. “I want to integrate this into my presidency.”

Three days later Stephen flew to Camp David to counsel President Clinton and his wife, Hillary. The Clintons showed keen interest in what he had to say and even asked him to stay an extra day.

“He was able to serve because he refused to be critical,” says Cynthia Haller, Stephen’s oldest daughter. “That experience was a wonderful example to me and my family.” 

Stephen consistently acts according to the principles he teaches, as his family can attest with countless stories. “That’s the source of my father’s power as a teacher,” says his oldest son, Stephen M. R. Covey. “He is who you think he is.”

That constancy has led him to numerous opportunities to do what he set out to do at the onset of his career: teach, inspire, and help others achieve greatness. Doing so has brought him unanticipated success.

“His key is integrating the gospel into every aspect of his life,” Cynthia says. “He lives his personal mission statement: If you put the Lord first, He’ll teach you what to put second.” 

Coming in a close second in Stephen’s life is family, followed by his passion expressed in the mission of his company, FranklinCovey: “To enable greatness in people and organizations everywhere.”

Developing Habits 

Stephen has done this by teaching principles he calls timeless and God-given. “These principles are so universal, in fact, that they can be considered laws, like gravity,” says his longtime business partner Boyd Craig. “He teaches that if you put these principles at the center of your life, you’ll have security, guidance, wisdom, and power.” 

These principles—such as be proactive, think win/win, and sharpen the saw—have resounded with diverse groups across the world, all starting with the publication of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. When 7 Habits climbed to the top of best-seller lists, the demand for a conversation with Stephen skyrocketed. He began consulting big-time business and political leaders worldwide who had read his book—Oprah, Nelson Mandela, both George Bushes, Victor Frankl, Desmond Tutu, Vicente Fox, Mikhail Gorbachev. 

7 Habits was named the No. 1 Most Influential Business Book of the Twentieth Century, and its sales topped twenty-five million copies—not including huge sales in China, where books are often printed illegally. But that doesn’t bother Stephen much, as long as readers glean something helpful.
“My father doesn’t claim to have invented these ideas,” says his son Stephen. “He has simply organized them and sequenced them in a way that will be memorable and useful to others.”

Stephen R. Covey

Early Influence 

Born in Salt Lake City in 1932, young Stephen was high-spirited and active. He put his verve into sports—especially tennis and marbles, placing third in the national marble championship. 

In junior high Stephen was diagnosed with a painful, crippling disease called slipped capital femoral epiphysis that kept him on crutches for three years. He transferred his passion from athletics to academics. He began reading with ardor, joined the debate team, and graduated from high school early.

Those years changed the course of his life, says Sandra, Stephen’s wife. When President A. Hamer Reiser of the British Mission needed a missionary to help with training, Elder Covey got the assignment. He had already graduated with a business degree from the University of Utah. Stephen spent the remainder of his mission training missionaries and branch presidents.

It was in the small meetinghouses of Great Britain and in the square of Hyde Park that he realized he loved teaching and discovered his talent for it.

Upon returning home in 1954, Stephen knew what he wanted to do with his life: inspire others to greater success. After completing master’s studies in business at Harvard, he turned down an offer to take over the family hotel business and began teaching at the BYU School of Management.

Years later, twenty-nine-year-old Stephen returned to Great Britain as President Covey, relocating with his young family to oversee the new Ireland mission. While there he received regular correspondence from his mother that often included news articles about BYU and its president, Ernest L. Wilkinson. One day Stephen wrote President Wilkinson a letter, explaining to him that he needed to change his ways if he wanted to be on the Supreme Court or continue as president of BYU.

Instead of dismissing the unsolicited advice, Wilkinson got on a plane and flew to Great Britain to talk with Stephen. During that meeting Wilkinson invited Stephen to be his administrative assistant when Stephen finished his mission.

He served alongside Wilkinson for four years, after which he returned to teaching in the business school. Later that year Stephen teamed up with professor and future School of Management dean William G. Dyer to launch the Department of Organizational Behavior. The new department aimed to train students in helping organizations better accomplish their goals—mirroring Stephen’s consulting and training business. 

Five years later, the first year national business school rankings were released, BYU landed the twenty-fifth spot. “It was the first time and maybe the last that a school has been ranked because of its organizational behavior department,” says Merrill J. Bateman, who was dean at the time. “Steve was a key person in the group that helped develop a reputation for Brigham Young University. And we’ve been building on it ever since.”

But the core of Stephen’s influence at the School of Management has been his individual approach to teaching. He cared about each student, even though his classes were large. Some would even follow him to non-university speaking engagements. He quickly became one of the most popular professors on campus.

Putting First Things First 

All his life Stephen has been on the move. While dating, he and Sandra would do at least three activities a night. He talks with everyone—from dignitaries to cab drivers—and he listens. 

“People who have met Stephen remember his sincerity and his interest in them,” Sandra says.

“He was probably the busiest person in Provo and traveled more than anyone we knew, but we didn’t feel his absence,” Cynthia says. “When he was there with us, he was really there, and he was at everything important.”

Cynthia remembers one particular experience when she was twelve. For months she and her dad had been planning a date in San Francisco. After a day of teaching at a conference in the City by the Bay, Stephen hurriedly greeted a line of people. He and Cynthia had every minute of their night planned: from riding a trolley car to a midnight swim.

Cynthia watched her father greet a friend from college whom he hadn’t seen in years. The friend invited Stephen to dinner; Cynthia remembers thinking this was the end of their night.

Then her father said, “I really would like to catch up, but I have a special date planned with my daughter, and I can’t miss it.” He turned to Cynthia and winked. “We’ve got our whole night planned, don’t we, honey?”

“That meant the world to me,” she says.

The Leading Edge 

Though Stephen has recently entered his octogenarian decade, he hasn’t retired. He is still connected to BYU and the Marriott School. He currently serves as a member of the President’s Leadership Council—a group of donors who lead fund-raising efforts for the university—and has mentored many students. While he no longer travels or teaches due to age-related health challenges, he is still writing. Seven books are currently in the works. One of them, Live Life in Crescendo, provides a glimpse into his life.

“My father totally rejects the notion that you should retire and play golf,” says Cynthia, who is gathering stories and examples for the book. “Instead, be involved; continue to contribute. Your most important work is still ahead of you.”

The purpose of this forthcoming book is, Cynthia says, “to get across the idea that life is a mission, not a career, and we’re here on this earth to serve.”
Stephen may be well known, but his aim has never been fame or wealth. He has gone about in his humble way to empower people and help them take control of their lives.

Even as Stephen received his doctorate of religious education from BYU in 1976 he looked ahead at the opportunities to influence. “I remember my father telling me that receiving a doctorate was a good thing,” his son Stephen recalls, “but that ‘a doctorate is something you achieve and earn; an honorary doctorate is given because you’ve contributed and made a difference.’”

Stephen was given his first honorary doctorate in 1990 and was subsequently presented with ten more. 

“He has never said anything about honorary doctorates since that conversation,” his son says. “Deep down I feel his receiving these honors is most satisfying to him, because it’s a recognition of contribution.”

The Seven Wonders 

Stephen R. Covey magazines

Covey left the School of Management in 1983 to start Stephen R. Covey and Associates (now FranklinCovey) and become a full-time consultant. He loved BYU but knew there were vast opportunities waiting. “He wanted greater influence and leverage,” says his son Stephen. “It was a risk, but it paid off.”

There was good reason for Stephen’s confidence. While teaching organizational behavior, he had spent the weekends helping business clients implement those same principles. One of his first clients was his cousin Rick Warner, a Ford dealer in Salt Lake City. Stephen left Warner’s employees energized, and word about his powerful ideas and clear way of presenting spread.

His clientele within the United States grew rapidly, but his international following boomed. Leaders in China, Japan, Russia, the Middle East, and Korea were captivated with Stephen’s ideas, and he began to travel, keeping merciless schedules. He would give three to six presentations a day, get on a plane, and do the same thing the next day. He spoke at firesides and community forums for the LDS Church and trained missionaries wherever he went. Stephen filled every minute, unwilling to waste the stewardship he felt he’d been given.

“Those who traveled with him had a hard time keeping pace,” Cynthia says. “And they didn’t have to do any speaking.”

The principles Stephen teaches, Boyd Craig says, along with his commitment to his mission, gave him the stamina to keep moving and doing what he loved.

True Perspective 

Despite the busyness of his life, Stephen has always kept the end in mind—focusing on his family. He frequently declined speaking engagements to watch a son’s football game or see a daughter’s school play. He used every opportunity—including changing a flat tire—to teach his nine children the same principles he taught world leaders.

On his way home from a business trip, Stephen hopped on an airport bus in Salt Lake City. After a conversation with the driver, Stephen bought the bus and drove it home. He named it Papa’s Bus and chauffeured his family through Yellowstone or to the park to eat fried chicken and hold family home evening. 

Stephen’s greatest legacy will not be the number of heads of state he has advised, the millions of books he has sold, or the awards he has been given, Craig says. “For all the recognition he has received, the Stephen and Sandra Covey family stands supreme.” 


Article written by Lena M. Harper
Photographed by Bradley Slade

About the Author 
Lena M. Harper works at Brigham Young University, where she edits with abandon—magazines, speeches, CD booklets—happily writes on occasion, and gratefully learns from those who are much wiser.

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