Stephen Covey on Leadership

Stephen R. Covey on leadership

The late Stephen R. Covey is considered one of the most respected authorities on leadership, having authored “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” which was named the most influential business book of the twentieth century.

Covey distilled profound ideas, philosophies and principles into easy-to-use daily habits that anyone can apply. Here, we capture some of his most insightful thinking about leadership, taken from a speech and interview he gave in 2005.

Find Your Voice and Personal Significance

In his book “The 8th Habit”, Covey associates leadership with those who seek to become an island of excellence by finding their voice and helping others to find theirs. Value also comes from developing your unique personal significance.

“Voice lies at the nexus of talent, passion, need and conscience. When anyone engages in work that taps into their talent and fuels their passion, and this rises out of a great need in the world that they feel drawn by conscience to meet, therein lies their voice in life.”

Be Principle Centred

Covey believes the most important leadership attribute is being principle centred. Centring on principles that are universal and timeless provides a foundation and compass to guide every decision and act.

“I've based my life's work on promoting principles and teaching the power that resides in principle-centred leadership. Principles are not my invention; they are self-evident and found throughout the world.

If you look at all enduring philosophies, religions and thoughts, you will find principles such as integrity, compassion, trust, honesty, accountability and others at their core. I simply translated these principles into a framework of habits that, when followed with consistency and frequency, transforms one's character and allows one to earn the moral authority necessary for enduring leadership.”

Communicate Worth and Potential

Covey emphasises that leadership is not simply a position, title, status or rank.

“Through years of study, teaching and working with people all over the world, from all walks of life, I have determined that leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential in a way that is so clear that they come to see it in themselves.

Thus, leadership extends to the many personal and professional roles we play as workers, parents, children, teachers, students and swamis, and the choice we make to live by principles to help others find their voice.”

Think With Your Whole Body

According to Covey, many businesses tend to be trapped in industrial age thinking even though society is well into the age of the ‘knowledge worker’. He champions a new way of thinking called the ‘whole body paradigm’ of integrating body, mind, heart and spirit, which he equates to the principles of discipline, vision, passion and conscience.

In contrast, the industrial age tended to focus on the body, equating to things, systems, structures, procedures, efficiency and the bottom line. However, 80 per cent of all added value to goods and services now comes from knowledge working.

Point Everyone in the Same Direction

Covey used a simple test to illustrate the leadership need to align employees in the direction of the business. He asked the audience to close their eyes and point north. When everyone opened their eyes, most of the audience were pointing in different directions.

Every organisation must ensure its workforce has a clear understanding of what it is trying to achieve and why. According to Covey, part of the solution is to have a transcendent or ‘wildly important goal’ that serves a greater purpose. Only once this goal is clearly understood by everyone can quantum improvements happen.

Create Understanding

Empathic listening is the art of seeking to understand before seeking to be understood. Covey talks about how Native Indian tribes use a ‘talking stick’ in meetings, where the person holding the stick is the only one allowed to speak.

Only when the holder feels completely understood do they pass the stick to the next person. Every business would do well to have a talking stick to create better understanding and synergy among the team.

Be Guided by Your Conscience

When asked which leader he admired most, Covey pointed to Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank. Muhammad saw a need, felt his conscience move him to try and fill that need, and applied his talents and passion to achieve it. In the process, he found his voice and helped others to find theirs.

Muhammad wanted to help his impoverished fellow citizens in Bangladesh. He met a woman who made bamboo stools but only earned two US pennies each day.

He enquired about her work and found that the woman had no money to buy the necessary bamboo, so she was forced to borrow money from a trader on condition that she sell him her finished product at a price he dictated.

In essence, this poor woman was held hostage by the trader, and she was not alone. There was an entire village of 42 hard-working people in unbearable circumstances, and Muhammad calculated that it only required $27 US dollars to help them out.

He immediately gave the money to the people and told them it was a loan to be repaid when they were able to. Muhammad went even further, asking the local bank to loan these villagers additional money and offered himself as a guarantor.

Much to the scepticism and surprise of the bankers, the villagers paid every penny back on several loans. Muhammad eventually expanded this loan programme by creating his own micro-credit lending institution called the Grameen Bank so he could help others.

Grameen Bank now works with thousands of villages, providing micro-loans to empower the poor to produce and sell their goods, and build housing. Yunus and the Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

Travel Towards Greatness and Meaning

Covey gives strong advice for those who wish to develop their leadership potential, or simply achieve greater success.

“Everyone chooses one of two roads in life, whether you are older or younger, man or woman, rich or poor. The most travelled road is the one that takes us to mediocrity, and the other less travelled road takes us to greatness and meaning.

The first road limits us and prevents us from realising our full potential. This road is often the quick-fix or short-cut approach to life. It often lures us to it when we don't take accountability for ourselves or see ourselves as victims.

My advice to the youth is to avoid the road of mediocrity. It's probably hard for them to see into the long term, but if they try to see themselves as human beings with vast potential, and see that, next to life itself, their greatest gift is choice, they can choose their responses to whatever comes to them in life. They can take responsibility for their choices, their behaviours, their feelings, and choose to create their future.”

How Can Training Help Me?

Stephen R. Covey talked of working hard to dedicate his personal and professional life to principle-centred living. He was driven by a passion and conscience to spread an understanding of principles that help people to achieve greater success in life.

If you wish to develop your leadership potential, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

This article was originally contributed by Sharif Khan, and comes from a leadership speech and interview with Stephen R. Covey at the Mississauga Living Arts Centre in Toronto in 2005.

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