Dr. Stephen R. Covey Treated All With Respect
Editor’s note: After Dr. Stephen R. Covey, the Jon M. Huntsman Presidential Chair in Leadership, died on July 16, 2012, nearly everyone who knew him could tell a story about the positive impact he had on their lives, either directly or indirectly. Steve Eaton, the director of communications for the Huntsman School of Business, shared some of his memories in a blog post that we have decided to share here.
By Steve Eaton
Dr. Covey speaks at seminar for faculty and staff.
Photo by Steve Eaton
The first time I saw Stephen R. Covey he was surrounded by people seeking his autograph.
I don’t think any of them wanted it as a keepsake or something they might be tempted to resell to a collector. They just hoped they would be able to get into in his very crowded class and needed him to sign an add slip that gave them permission to come even though the class was full. I was one of those students.
That was back in 1979 and while the rest of the world hadn’t discovered Dr. Covey, Brigham Young University students had. He was a popular teacher. Instead of forcing yourself to pay attention in his class so that you could pass an exam; students were attentive because he seemed to know how to prepare them for life’s real tests.
I remember one time I sat on the front row and was surprised when he reached down and took the glasses right off the face of a student a few seats down from me. I was even more troubled when he then took my glasses off and put her glasses on me. Suddenly he was staring down at me with a very stern look and asking, “What do you think of those glasses?”
“Well, they are kind of blurry,” I said hesitantly. I had no idea what was going on.
He snatched them back and put them on himself and said, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with these glasses. In fact, your mother and I have worn them for years, with no problems. You, young man, have a bad attitude.”
He was sort of menacing when he role-played like that.
He put them back on my face and said, “Now, what do you think of those glasses?”
I tried to have a better attitude and he laughed. He was teaching us all that just because we see things a certain way, doesn’t mean others see them the same way. Even though it was a lesson given 33 years ago, I’m still trying to master the principle he taught that day.
When I was a custodian at BYU, I helped him move some boxes from one office to the other. He treated me like an old friend and gave me a Day Timer, which is a pocket calendar, as a reward. Little did either of us know he would eventually consider Day Timer a competitor in the day-planner marketplace.
He got mildly upset with me one time when, as a student reporter, I talked one of his kids into sharing with me his private cabin phone number where he would go to in a nearby canyon to spend quality time with his family. I promised him that I would destroy the phone number after the interview and explained the predicament I was in. He softened and then graciously gave me the interview. Even back then he was serious about guarding his family time. (I don’t know if that was before or after his children started making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on his head if he took calls during family time.)
Dr. Covey teaches students.
Photo by Steve Eaton
When Dean Douglas D. Anderson announced that Dr. Covey had agreed to become the first Jon M. Huntsman Presidential Chair in Leadership I was so pleased that I offered to let Dr. Covey share my office. On his last visit to campus I told him if he would just use my basement office one time to make a phone call or do anything, I could brag for the rest of my life that I had shared an office with the famous Stephen R. Covey. He promised to use my office on his next visit.
When I interviewed him for the Huntsman Alumni Magazine he showed me around his home, and one wall was covered with pictures, awards and other honors he had received from the world for his contributions. There were even awards leaning up against the walls as if they were waiting in vain for some prime wall space to open up. The other wall which was much larger, two stories tall, was packed from floor to ceiling with pictures of family and friends – including a picture of Dr. Covey with a peanut butter sandwich on his head. He was clearly proudest of the family pictures.
He’d consulted with many powerful people and heads of state, including several U.S. Presidents, and I asked him if he was ever intimidated to meet anyone because they were so important. He said that of course he wasn’t and acted like that was sort of a strange and silly question to ask. I later realized that he treated everyone with equal respect, regardless of their position or rank. A president would be no more intimidating than a custodian under that paradigm.
I got to see this demonstrated over and over because when Dr. Covey made visits to the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business and to the Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence international conferences, I got a chance to spend time with him. I drove him across campus in a golf cart. Usually I was the guy taking pictures at the events he attended.
It made no difference who approached him, he gave them his full attention and never complained when yet another person wanted to have their picture taken with him. (I guess he didn’t treat them all equally. Men who were bald seemed to get an extra dose of love and teasing from him. He was always rubbing their heads and pointing out they had something in common.)
He had a great sense of humor. He thought it was funny and strange when he sat next to me before he was about to speak at USU to a group of about 300 students and I started whispering words of encouragement to him like, “You can do this! You just have to believe in yourself!” It was sort of like telling Michael Jordan you knew he could make the team if he applied himself. Or the time that I told him before a Shingo presentation that if anything went wrong he should point at me, and I could come up and clog behind him.
“There’s nothing like a fat man clogging behind you to make a presentation memorable,” I said.
He burst into laughter and after he spoke he joked with me that maybe he should have had me clogging behind him. (By the way, he did a great job speaking and had no need for diversionary clogging.)
Dr. Covey recognizes something he and Al Warnick have in common.
Photo by Casey McFarland
I went to his funeral held at the UCCU Center at Utah Valley University. When they rolled in his casket there was a wide line of family members who came in behind it that must have numbered in the hundreds. It was very impressive. That was his real legacy. And the funeral wasn’t about all his vocational accomplishments or the books he published. It was all about family and his deep faith. Each of his nine children spoke and shared memories of their father and how he made them each feel loved and special.
President Henry B. Eyring of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke, and even he felt compelled to share a memory of a time he was impressed to see the respect that Dr. Covey showed for his wife Sandra.
One of my best memories of Dr. Covey was the time I saw him just after he arrived at the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center for a Shingo conference. He was going up an escalator on the other side of a room about 100 feet away and I was going down on an escalator. In an unusually rash burst of spontaneity, I shouted “Dr. Covey!” He turned to look to see who had called him. I called out, “Captain, my captain!” quoting a line from the "Dead Poets Society" movie that I was sure he had seen. Then I saluted. He broke into a huge smile, squared his shoulders, stood at attention and saluted back as the escalator slowly took him up to the next level. I was just the camera guy that day, but I felt like the president of the United States.
So, Dr. Covey, this is just a blog but if you are allowed to read such things in heaven, I have a message for you.
I still salute you and so do the many, many others you served, lifted, and empowered. We will miss you.