The Best Lessons I Learned from Stephen Covey



“There are three constants in life… change, choice and principles.” — Stephen Covey

One of the interesting people I got to meet this year is Stephen Covey.

It was amazing to experience Stephen Covey in person.

This post is a bit longer than usual, but hey, Stephen Covey has a wealth of insights.

Here are some of my highlights from Stephen Covey’s presentation.

The Lighthouse Story

Covey opened with a story of Captain Horatio Hornblower.  As the story goes, one night at sea, Horatio awakens to find that a ship is in his sea-lane about 20 miles away and refuses to move.

Horatio commands the other ship to move starboard, 20 degrees at once.

The other ship refuses and tells Horatio that he should move his ship starboard, 20 degrees at once.

Next, Horatio tries to pull rank and size on the other ship, stating that he’s a captain and that he’s on a large battle ship.

The other ship replies, and it turns out it’s not actually a ship, but a lighthouse.

The take away from the story is, there are lighthouse principles–You don’t break them.

You only break yourself against them.

Don’t break yourself against lighthouse principles.

Values and Principles

Covey distinguished values from principles:

  • Values drive behavior.
  • Principles drive the consequences of behavior.

The key take aways are:

  1. If you take the short cuts in life, you pay the price of confidence and trust.
  2. Build your personal value system on principles.

Personal Mission Statement

Covey asked us whether we had personal mission statements?  Some folks raised their hands.  He then asked us how many have them written down.  A lot less kept their hands raised.

I kept my hand raised because I happen to have my personal mission statement written down.

My personal mission statement is, “To find the best way for any person to succeed in any situation.”    I tie this back at work, where I try to help customers be as effective as possible..

Family Mission Statement

Covey then challenged the audience whether we had mission statements for our families?  That one made me think.  He then challenged, if you asked your loved ones, would they know it?  Now there’s a good test!

He challenged us to go home and ask, “What’s the purpose of our family?”  (He warned us though, that our families will know that we’ve been seminar’ed!)

Write and Visualize to Imprint on Your Subconscious

Covey reminded us that writing down your mission imprints it in the subconscious mind.  He added that visualizing also imprints on the sub-conscious mind.

The take away is that you should write and visualize your mission statements.

Keys to a Mission Statement

Covey put it succinctly that a good mission statement is:

  1. Memorizable.
  2. Short.
  3. Follows the natural laws of principles.

Why a Mission Statement

Covey told us that the power of a mission statement is that it governs every other decision.

Sean Covey

Covey introduced his son, Sean Covey.  Sean wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers and The 6 Most Important Decisions You Will Ever Make.   When Covey introduced Sean, he also mentioned a 49th grand-child on the way.  49 … WOW!  That’s quite the impressive team.

Point to True North

Covey had us close our eyes and point to true North.  When we opened our eyes, it was obvious there was little consistency.  He said he gets similar results when he asks any department, group, or team – “what’s your purpose?”

Urgent But Not Important

Covey asked us how many struggle with work/life balance.  Many hands went up.  He then asked us what we think is the percentage of time we spend on things that are urgent, but not important.

He said people often report they feel they spend 50% of their time on urgent, but not important tasks.  Why is that?  Covey stated it’s because everybody defines purpose differently.

Office Politics and Dysfunctional Activities

Covey asked us how much time people spend in office politics.    By office politics, he meant, reading the tea leaves, dealing with hidden agendas, fighting cross-group conflict, … etc.  The data says that 75% of people claim they spend 25% of their time on these things.  25% say that 50% of their time is spent in dysfunctional activities.  Urgency replaces important activities.

The key take away is that people feel they spend a lot of time on dysfunctional activities.

Six Metastasizing Cancers (Victimism)

Covey showed us a slide that listed what he called the Six Metastasizing Cancers:

  • Criticizing
  • Complaining
  • Comparing
  • Competing
  • Contending
  • Cynicism

The take away here is that these are ineffective behaviors and you end up acting like a victim.

Are You Utilized to Your Full Potential

Covey asked us whether we can use our full talent and capacity in our organization.   He then asked us whether we feel the pressure to produce more for less.   The point here was to emphasize how there’s a demand for greater results, but that we’re not necessarily utilized to our full potential.

It’s Not Behavior, It’s Not Attitude … It’s a Bad Map

Covey gave us a scenario where somebody gets a map of Seattle.  The problem is, the map maker made a mistake.  It’s not really a map of Seattle.  It’s a map of Oregon.  With this map, you can’t even make it out of the airport.  There isn’t one corresponding point.

Trying harder isn’t the answer.  If you double your speed, now you’re lost twice as fast.  Thinking negatively isn’t the problem.  Covey said some people might try to use a PMA (Positive Mental Attitude.)  Well, that doesn’t help either.  Now you’re all psyched up, but really you are just happy and contented in a lost state.

The take away here is that it’s not behavior and it’s not attitude.  It’s a bad map.


Covey told us that we need to be self-educating.  School taught us how to learn, but we need to continue to learn.  He said we need to be willing to pay the price to be self-educating, which includes being systematic and disciplined.

Industrial Age vs. Knowledge Worker Age

Covey points out that 20 years ago, it was about goods and services.  Today, it’s about knowledge workers.

Industrial Age Knowledge Worker Age
Overall Philosophy Kind Control Unleash Talent
Leadership Position (Formal Authority) Choice (Moral Authority)
Culture Boss Centered Complementary Team, Servant Leadership
People Expense Asset
Motivation External Internal (Inspiration)
Management The Boss owns responsibility for results, therefore manages and motivates. The culture owns responsibility for results, therefore self manages.

Expenses and Assets

Covey asked us what we are called in spreadsheets.   He said that in spreadsheet and financial accounting, people are called expenses and cost centers, while things like microphones, tools, and machines are called assets.  He said this is left-over from the industrial age.

Finding Your Voice

Covey asked how do you help people find their voice?  You ask them what are they good at?  What do they love doing?  What is your greatest unique contribution?

The key is finding a voice that meets a human need.

Inspiration Over Jackass Theory

The Jackass Theory refers to the carrot and the stick.  Covey asked us what kind of supervisor do you need when you have a job that you are passionate about and is using your talents and you feel you are appreciated.

People are volunteers.  You want them to contribute their greatest, unique contribution.

Keys to Effective Large Teams

Covey outlined the keys for effective large teams::

  • Psychologically committed.
  • Accountable to the team / everybody.
  • Culture of results.

One person may represent the group, but accountability is to the team versus the boss.  Accountability to the team versus an individual is a knowledge worker concept.

How To Find the Win / Win Performance Agreement

Covey suggested an approach for finding the Win/Win for teams and organizations in terms of performance:

  1. Help them find their voice.
  2. Find out what individuals are good at and like doing and serves the needs of the business.

When you have that, you have a win-win.  The key is to have a win/win performance agreement where it is mutually beneficial between the individual and the organization.  The individual should be able to use their full talent and passion (there voice.)

Information is the Knowledge Worker’s Disinfectant

Covey mentioned that light is the greatest disinfectant in nature.  For the knowledge worker, it’s information.  For a knowledge worker to be effective in a team, they need information, they need the criteria for success and they need to be accountable to the group.

The Whole Person

According to Covey, the whole person includes four parts:

  • Body
  • Mind
  • Heart
  • Spirit

Control-Paradigm to a Whole Person Paradigm

Covey reminded us that today’s workforce is about directed autonomy.  You manage (things) that can’t choose.  You lead people.  People have the ability to choose.

The key take aways are:

  • Today’s world is about breaking away from a control paradigm and shifting to one of directed autonomy.
  • Help people find their voice.
  • You can’t buy the mind, body, heart, and spirit – they are volunteered.
  • Use all four parts of your nature.  If you take one away, then you’re treating a person as a “thing” that you control and manage.

Keeping Top Talent

Covey told us about how Admirals in the Pacific were losing people to better paying jobs.  There was an exception.  Covey got to meet the group that kept their top talent.  The keys to a committed group included:

  • The culture was committed in hearts and minds.
  • The job was fulfilling and meaningful.

Indian Talking Stick Communication

Covey shared a technique for improving empathic listening.  It’s the Indian Talking Stick:

  • You give the stick to the other person first.
  • You don’t get the stick back until the other person feels they are understood.
  • The purpose is not to agree, or disagree, but only to understand the speaker.

You don’t need to use an Indian talking stick.  You can use any object.  The value of the object is that you don’t get it back until the other person feels understood.

Industrial Age Concepts

Throughout the session, Covey made reference to some “industrial age concepts”:

  • People are an expense, tools and machines are assets.
  • Supervision is an industrial age concept.
  • One-on-one accountability to a boss.
  • Comparison systems for the basis of collaboration.

Lighthouse Principles

Throughout the presentation, Covey referred to some lighthouse principles that govern behavior:

  • Cultivate an abundance mentality.
  • There are four parts to our nature: body, mind, heart, and spirit
  • The whole is greater than the parts
  • Develop integrity; avoid duplicity (Don’t say one thing, but do another and if you make a promise, keep it.)

Continuum of Communication

Covey showed us a continuum of communication that moves from hostility and transaction-based communication to transformation:

  1. Hostility
  2. Defensive Communication (Transaction)
  3. Respectful Communication (Transaction)
  4. Synergy, Third Alternative (Transformation)

Empathic Listening is the No. 1 Communication Skill

Covey stated that communication is the number one skill in life.  He went on to say that empathic listening is the number one communication skill.   Covey explained that empathic listening is listening within the other person’s frame of skills.   Listening empathically is listening with the other person’s frame of reference.  The key is to listen until the other person feels heard and understood.

Empathic Listening Over Telling and Selling

A satisfied need, no longer motivates.  Covey used the example of air – it’s a satisfied need.  When the other person feels heard and understood, it’s more likely they will listen to you and that you can seek a better solution, that’s mutually beneficial.  You are no longer telling and selling.

Our Experience is the Lens We Use to Interpret Life

Covey showed the audience three pictures.   One half of the audience looked at the first picture.  Next, the other half of the audience looked at the second picture.  Then the full audience looked at a third slide which was a composite of the first two slides.

Depending on which of the pictures you saw first, influenced what you saw in this third picture.

The key take away here was that what you saw was influenced by your experience and that rather that impose your view, first understand the other person’s perspective – there’s a good chance, you’re both right! (This is a good case where the Indian Talking Stick could come in handy.)

Resolving Conflict By Finding the Third Alternative

Covey shared a technique for resolving conflict that works for him in 95% of the cases he runs into around the world.  Here’s the key steps:

  1. Put up the two points.
  2. Ask the question, “would you be willing to search for a solution that would be better than what either of us has proposed?”

The key here is to listen to the other person first and listen empathically.  The proactive part here is that you can choose to listen to the other person first (seek first to understand, then to be understood.)

Listening to Loved Ones

One of the audience members asked for advice on counseling a loved one.  Covey responded with the following solution:

  1. Start by saying, “Honey, I have not spent the time to listen to you, all I’ve done is tell you and evaluate.”
  2. Listen in depth; restate to their satisfaction. (Empathic listening)
  3. After they feel understood, you ask, “Have I listened to you?  Are you willing to listen to me, as I have listened to you?”
  4. Find a 3rd alternative.

The key here that Covey mentioned is that most people will not pay the price of listening empathically.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Covey shared a slide that framed out the seven habits of highly effective people in terms of private victory, public victory, dependence, independence, and interdependence.

  1. Be proactive.
  2. Begin with the end in mind.
  3. Put first things first.
  4. Think win-win.
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
  6. Synergize.
  7. Sharpen the saw.

Habits 1,2,and 3 are the foundation for private victories and integrity.  Habits 4, 5, and 6 are the keys to public victories.

Peace of Conscience Over Peace of Mind

Covey made a distinction between peace of mind and peace of conscience.  He explained that integrity is more than honesty.  Integrity means that if you make a promise, you keep it.

If you’re honest, you might have peace of mind, but if you don’t have integrity, then you won’t have peace of conscience.  You have peace of conscience by avoiding duplicity.

Loyalty to the Absent

Covey made his point very simply – only talk about people as if they are there.

You can be critical, but speak as if they were there in front of you.

Don’t bad mouth them behind their back and then sweet talk them to their face.  This is a lack of integrity and creates deep duplicity inside you.

This inhibits your ability to have peace of conscience.

Use I Messages Over You Messages

Meet with the people you have a problem with directly.  Practice the following:

  1. Let me listen to you first.
  2. Use “I” messages vs. “you” messages.  I messages are “It’s my perception,” “in my experience,” … etc.  You messages are “you are …”

Genuine Happiness

Covey said the key to genuine happiness is to develop integrity.  The key to developing integrity is the first three habits (your Private Victories):

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first.

Greek Philosophy of Influence

Covey shared the three parts of the Greek philosophy of influence:

  1. Ethos – credibility, model trust.
  2. Pathos – restate the point of view.  (Seek first to understand …)
  3. Logos – Make your presentation. (… Then to be understood.)

You Are the Creative Force of Your Life

Covey challenged us to be a creative force:

  1. Get out of victimism – You’re not a victim of your circumstances.
  2. You are the creative force of your life.

Empathize first.  Grow your circle of influence.  Make tremendous impact.

The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Do

Covey closed with a powerful message we could take away:

“The most important thing you’ll ever do is in the four walls of your own home.”

My Favorite Part of the Session

While I enjoyed the entire session, my favorite part was getting to meet Dr. Covey.


I shook his hand.

I thanked him for helping people find their voice and he signed my post it note (sadly, I didn’t think to bring my Covey books, and all I had was my post it notes.)

Key Actions

After the session, I met with Srinath.  We learned a lot so we tried to turn our insights into a small set of key actions.  Here’s what we came up with:

  1. Develop personal / family mission statements and help others to do the same.
  2. Develop empathic listening and help others to do the same.
  3. Find our voices and help others find theirs.

Personally, I want to make more use of the Indian Talking Stick Communication technique, particularly at some of my more vibrant meetings.

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  1. Hi J.D. – This is such a comprehensive collection of valuable points. What a great thing to read as we begin a new year. I especially appreciate the list of six behaviors that metastasize – so true. This information will be extremely helpful to me in a couple of weeks when I rally the troops against the recession stinkin’ thinkin’ at our franchise advisory council meetings. Thank you so much, and best wishes for a wonderful New Year!

  2. @ Betsy

    Great to hear! Covey’s impressive and he’s got amazing presence.

    Good luck rallying the troops and happy New Year!

  3. I thouroughly felt like a just had a mini workshop. Thanks for your detail orientated and organized structure. I do agree wholeheartedly that ampathetic listening is one of the greatest assets to have.
    Thanks and Happy New Year!

  4. […] Empathic listening. Listen until the other person “feels” they’ve been heard.  Once they feel heard, they’re more likely to listen to you.  You can do this 1:1 or in a large meeting.  Covey uses an “Indian Talking Stick.”   The person with the stick talks until they feel heard.  A former Softie told me his team used an eraser as “the mutex.”   See Lessons Learned from Stephen Covey. […]

  5. What a great post to read over before leaving work for home (and vice versa). Thanks for pulling all of this together for us.

  6. Dear JD,
    I found this link through your Stephen Covey Leaves a Legacy post. This is simply brilliant! What you have done really speaks about the LEGACY Dr. Covey talked about.

    Thank you.

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