It was approximately two years ago that I wrote my first blog on HuffPost called "'Sharpening the Saw,' Whether You Like It or Not" about my story of self-realization when I was unexpectedly fired from a large company after only 10 weeks of working in a very senior job. More important than the journey of self-discovery I made during my first "life sabbatical" (taking 5 months off!) was the source and guidance of my thinking and actions. My inspiration came from a man named Stephen Covey, who I had followed through his writings in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families. In fact, the title of my blog post was directly inspired by his 7th habit, "sharpening the saw," from his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I loved everything that Covey wrote and I can say that he singularly had the greatest impact on my business and personal life. He helped make sense out of the great chaos of balancing a full life, and I used his books and teachings as examples at work and at home. I was also blessed through some unusual circumstances to meet him and become friends.
I discovered yesterday that Stephen passed away at the age of 79 from complications stemming from an accident that occurred while he was riding a bicycle in in the mountains of Provo, Utah. He was forever on an adventure. The news stunned me and the very same day, Arianna Huffington, knowing that we were friends, asked me if I could post a story about my experiences with him. I immediately agreed and began to reflect on everything he had taught me. Two stories automatically came to mind, which present a real picture of a man who impacted millions all over the world as I was fortunate enough to see him in action, in real life, up close and personal.
It was the fall of 1998 when I had my first encounter with Stephen. At the time I was both a zealot-like follower of his as well as the President of Reader's Digest's magazine group. One day, a call came in to my office and I was informed that Stephen Covey was on the phone -- my first thought was that it was a prank as I was always quoting him in my staff meetings! I answered, waiting to hear the prank but was very surprised to instead hear a calm soft spoken man on other end of the line. When I realized that this was in fact the real Stephen Covey, I was overwhelmed and wanted to tell him immediately how in hundreds of ways, his thinking and writing had impacted my life. We had a good chat and I discovered that Stephen wanted to meet with me to see if there might be opportunities to get involved with some editorial projects at Reader's Digest. I could not believe my ears and quickly agreed to meet with him. We had breakfast at the Marriot Marquis hotel in Manhattan a week later.
My first story about the real Stephen Covey took place at that breakfast as I watched and listened to his interactions with our waitress. As she came over with her pot of coffee and to take our order, Stephen very politely asked her how her day was going. The way he asked that very basic question and the way that he looked into her eyes, created such a connection that you could sense that she knew he was a very caring man. He then asked her where she lived and she told us that she lived in New Jersey and had a 60 mile daily commute by bus. His next question was about her family and as she told us about her two lovely children and how they were the center of her life you could see that in that moment Stephen had brought her in the middle of her busy day, to a very happy place. When she left to take our order back to the kitchen, Stephen quickly pointed out to me how devoted this hard working mother was to her family and how significant it was in his eyes that she endured such a commute to provide for her kids. When she came back to deliver our food, she looked at him and said: "You're Stephen Covey, aren't you?" We were both surprised and then she told us how the Marriot Corporation had used a motivational training program designed by Covey and that she recognized his picture from the materials. A few minutes later, many of the other restaurant staff came out to meet him including the short order cook and they all treated him like he was a rock star. He signed aprons and napkins and made sure to write the names of each of their children on every item. I was in awe of how he handled that morning and I know that those people at the Marriot restaurant will never forget meeting him. He had touched their lives before our breakfast and morning had even begun.
My second story about this amazing man came a few years later when I had gotten Stephen to agree to be the keynote speaker at the annual American Magazine conference. This was a real coup and I couldn't wait to have him as our star speaker. Three months before the conference, Stephen called me to say that he had to cancel his appearance due to a personal reason (a family event had come up) and he felt terrible about putting me in such a tough position. I told him that since he had called three months before the conference, I had plenty of time to get another speaker. After our chat, he wrote to the entire board of the Magazine Publisher's Association and apologized, telling them why he could not speak -- signing every letter personally. He then called me and offered to come in and give a custom full day presentation for Reader's Digest, which happened to be going through some tough times. His idea was to present how he believed our company should frame getting their business plan back on track. He said that he felt so bad about not speaking at the conference that he wanted to do this for me for free (Stephen's fee for this kind of a session was $100K) and I quickly accepted (though I couldn't help but feel a little guilty). Not surprisingly, he did brilliant job for Reader's Digest and it was a day I'm certain my team hasn't forgotten. He was in high demand and his free gesture didn't have anything to do with money, he was a man of honor and he went above and beyond the call of duty.
I think back now to how many people Stephen touched around the world and I want to make it clear that from my ring side seat I found that he was an authentic man of principals. He was a rare human being that boiled down life's complexities into an actionable plan.
Stephen Covey has left quite a legacy and I will miss him very much. I am very thankful that he has left me with writing and memories that I will always cherish.