Leadership Profile: Stephen Covey

March 4, 2013

Stephen CoveyIn case you hadn’t heard, author and leadership guru Stephen Covey passed away last summer at age 79 from injuries suffered in a bicycling accident. Covey is perhaps best known for his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold over 25 million copies worldwide. It’s the second-best book on leadership I’ve ever read (neck and neck with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People).

There isn’t room to adequately capture Covey’s contributions in a single post, so I’d like to briefly share a bit from Covey’s first habit: Be Proactive. This is where effectiveness begins.

Heavily influenced by the writings of Viktor Frankl, Covey built his first habit on the fundamental principle of human nature that “between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.” In layman’s terms, this simply means there’s always something you can do about you. The determining factor in your effectiveness isn’t what happens to “out there.” It’s what happens on the inside, where we choose how we will respond to what happens to us.

I can’t think of a more poignant time for this habit than in today’s age. People increasingly assume their success is dependent on outside forces: the government, education opportunities, job opportunities, family background, faith background, etc. These can all play an enormous role to be sure, but they are never the ultimate determinants of success and effectiveness.

The opposite of being proactive is being reactive. Reactive people assume there is nothing or very little they can do about their circumstances or concerns. Proactive folks realize that even if they can’t change some circumstances, they still have the ability to influence many outcomes – and here is the key – they are committed to changing what they can change. As a result, their circle of influence is always growing and their circle of concern naturally decreases the more proactive they become.

This is the reason I get so tickled when someone asks me if they can, in fact, be a leader. Leadership never begins with a followership (i.e. on the outside), it begins with being proactive (i.e. on the inside). When you come to the point where you realize that in every circumstance you have the ability to choose your response – to influence your own attitude, your own life, then the lives of those around you, and the environment you find yourself in for the better – you are already headed down the path of effectiveness.

What is one circumstance that required you to take a proactive approach and exercise your freedom to choose a positive response?

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.
  • John

    Thanks Nathan.

    A great word for the first day of sequester. I will ponder it all day as I have been thinking about my part in the political battles that are taking place in our country, and how can I, as a citizen, make a difference. I think you nailed it with two of your thoughts. First, “Be Proactive” , and second, “change what you can control.”

    Well, I can control how I choose to treat others, and how I can work to build up those around me. All too often I tend to focus on my issues, and forget that others may have it much worse. i love the first sentence in Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, “It’s not about you.”

    Perhaps if I focus more on living a life of significance rather than success (Bob Buford, Halftime), I can live a life that is more fulfilled. Significance seems to be about others (outward) while success is focused on my own achievements (inward).

    These principles can apply to personal or organizational values, and can transform culture more powerfully than any mission statement or policy. It is life or organizational culture lived rather than just lip service. As for me, I think I need to get busy living!

    Thanks,

    John

    • John, when I was deployed, one of the team leaders had a saying, “Change what you can, and if you can’t, change your attitude.” You are definitely referring to the need for significance here! It’s humbling for me to realize that being proactive is the first step – it makes the rest possible.

  • I strive to do this everyday. Being proactive means deciding what your reaction to a situation is going to be instead of letting it happen to you. You are right, it all starts with being proactive. That kind of thinking is in the minority, and will get you noticed!

    • Agreed, Tom. It’s harder when circumstances aren’t working in our favor, but if we quit, we give up any chance at effectiveness (according to Covey).

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  • Thanks for the profile. I have both of those books on my shelf and have yet to read them. They are on my list though!

    Guess I need to bump them up a bit 😀

    • It’s a big ol’ book, but will definitely be worth your while. I’ve read it 3 times so far – but I used audio.