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Over the past six months, the world has witnessed the financial consequences of what happens when the basic principles of honesty, thrift, living within your means and saving for a rainy day are substituted for a me-first, win-at-all-cost, grab-all-the-money-you-can kind of culture. What is needed more now than ever is a dose of common sense, back-to-basics thinking—a commitment to tried-and-true principles that best-selling author, entrepreneur and leadership icon Stephen Covey has taught throughout his distinguished career.
"Financial success—prestige, wealth, recognition, accomplishment—will always be secondary in greatness," Covey says. "Primary greatness is about character and contribution. Primary greatness asks, What are you doing to make a difference in the world? Do you live truly by your values? Do you have total integrity in all of your relationships? And when correct principles are not followed or ignored, the result can be catastrophic as we have witnessed the past year in the financial markets."
Money, whether in government or on Wall Street, can change one's motivation and integrity if money is the No. 1 objective, Covey says. "At this crucial time in our history, we need leaders who can affirm other people's worth and potential to help them find their voice," he says.
Sound advice like this has made Covey one of the most sought-after voices in business, education and government. To date, Covey has personally taught 36 heads of state, and his company, FranklinCovey, has worked with 800 of the Fortune 1,000 companies.
Covey has seen and done it all when it comes to helping people from all walks of life realize the greatness that lies within them. His first book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, was named the most influential business book of the 20th century by Forbes magazine. (The audio version became the first nonfiction audio-book in U.S. publishing history to sell more than 1 million copies.) In 1996, TIME magazine named Covey one of the 25 most influential Americans. Tens of millions of people in business, government, schools and families have greatly benefited by applying the principles of Covey's classic book.
Born in 1932 in Salt Lake City, Covey benefited from strong family influences. His mother and father constantly confirmed his worth and potential even as a young child. His business acumen was fostered by his Grandfather Covey, an entrepreneur who set up businesses all over the western United States. The spiritual side that is so prevalent in Covey's books results in part from many days at the knee of his Grandpa Richards, who was a great spiritual leader in his church.
Being the eldest sibling, Stephen Covey was the heir apparent destined to take over the family business, which owned several hotels, motels and lots of land. But he found his calling elsewhere. While serving his church as a young missionary in Great Britain, he had a mentor who taught him the art of training leaders. Although he felt inadequate for the job at first, his mentor saw in him a rare and natural talent. Covey says he had never experienced such satisfaction than training those leaders and soon developed a passion for teaching. After he finished his academic work at Harvard Business School, he made it known to his father that he would not be taking over the family business, but instead wanted to teach principles that had universal and timeless applications.
Bringing Back the Character Ethic
The genesis of Covey's work started when he was working on his doctorate. He immersed himself in an in-depth study of many authors of success literature over the past 200 years. He pored over thousands of articles and essays from popular psychology, personal development and self-help. It wasn't long before he noticed a pattern in the content.
Almost all of the literature in the first 150 years focused on what Covey calls "character ethic" attributes such as integrity, humility, courage, patience and the Golden Rule. "These basic principles of effective living and true success depended on integrating these principles into one's character," Covey says. One of his favorite authors was Ben Franklin, whose autobiography was representative of this kind of literature.
Conversely, Covey noticed a distinct shift in the success philosophy published after World War II. "I became enamored with how we had moved away from the character ethic toward what I call the personality ethic, where success was more based on personality, technique, appearance and having a positive mental attitude," Covey says. While beneficial, personality ethic attributes are secondary to character ethic traits, he says. "We have become so focused on building ourselves up we have forgotten the foundation that holds it up is that of character and integrity. Many are focused on reaping the goods without the need to sow the fields."
Covey says people can get by using the personality ethic to help make favorable first impressions, but these secondary traits have no long-term worth in long-term relationships. "Eventually, if there is no integrity, the challenges of life will reveal one's true character," Covey says. "As Emerson once said, 'What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.' " Out of these findings Covey went on to write The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which received critical acclaim when it debuted in 1990, and today remains one of the best-selling business books.
Finding Your Voice and Inspiring Others to Do the Same
The world has changed drastically since Covey's 7 Habits book was published. Being effective as individuals, entrepreneurs and business organizations is no longer an option, he says. This topic is the main voice of The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. During research for this book he was amazed at how alienated people are in their job environments. "We came to realize the need to affirm people's worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves," he says. "We need to help people gain access to those higher levels of genius and motivation. We need to help find their voice and have them help others to do the same."
The central theme of the book is that if individual business owners would see their roles of leadership as being based on helping other people and inspiring them to find their voices, they would not only keep their own integrity, but would develop such a reputation for trustworthiness that it would be like a magnet, drawing other people to them. One of those magnets Covey points out in his book is Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangledesh. His story beautifully illustrates the path to finding one's voice and helping others find theirs.
Yunus saw a need to help his impoverished fellow citizens in Bangladesh. He met a woman who made bamboo stools for pennies a day. In discussing the business with her he learned she didn't have the money to buy the necessary bamboo and was forced to get it from a local trader who would buy her product at an unfair price. In fact, the entire village worked under these unfair restrictions. After some research, Yunus found it would only take US$27 to help them out. After giving each the same amount, he told them it was a loan and they could repay him when they were able. Yunus even asked the local bank to participate, saying he would guarantee each loan the villagers were not able to pay back. Yet each villager who was loaned money repaid every penny. This led Yunus to establish his own microcredit lending institution called the Grameen Bank in which he duplicated this same program with other villages.
Grameen Bank now works with more than 46,000 villages, giving microloans totaling $500 a year to empower the poor, most of whom are women. The microcredit movement has now spread the world over, helping millions escape the grips of poverty. "Survival today requires new skills, new mindsets," Covey says. "People will be required to build on and reach beyond effectiveness to greatness, just as Muhammad Yunus did. People are longing for fulfillment, to experience passion and to contribute to society. The 8th Habit is about finding your voice while inspiring others to do the same."
Principles are Timeless
Covey believes being principle centered lies at the heart of leadership— principles that are universal and timeless that provide a foundation and compass to guide every decision and every act. "?I've based my life's work on promoting principle- centered leadership," he says. "The principles I teach—integrity, honesty, trust, compassion, accountability— are found throughout the world, including many religions and philosophies. If you deal with principles honestly, they apply everywhere and in every situation."
Covey is quick to clarify that leadership is not defined by one's position, title, status or rank. "Working with people, including 50-plus heads of state, from all over the world and from all walks of life, I can't tell you how important it is to communicate effectively to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves," he says. "We need to help more people to find their own purpose and unique contribution."
With so many accolades and skins on the wall, you would think Covey is ready to ride off into the sunset. "I still have a lot of work to do and am currently working on several books," he says. "I'm turning more and more toward the social goals of crime, education and poverty. My work will always consist of trying to get people focused upon good principles, especially character and contribution."