June 12, 1995 12:00 PM

FAMILY MEMBERS WHO VENTURE out of the house with personal-development guru Stephen R. Covey know they risk being embarrassed by his uninhibited antics. But on this day outside his cabin at the Sundance ski resort near Provo, Utah, Covey is on his best behavior as he teaches several of his 20 grandchildren how to ski. No chest-thumping gorilla imitations—he’s more likely to do that when they act up in shopping malls and he wants to shame them out of “monkey” behavior. No sudden catnaps—he takes those on the floor at parties when tired. The children are simply spending a nice afternoon with Granddad when the phone rings inside the cabin. It’s the White House. President Clinton wants some quality time with Covey too.

No wonder. With his 1989 Seven Habits of Highly Effective People having sold over 5 million copies and still vying for No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list of self-help paperbacks, Covey is in demand. Last year’s First Things First is nearing the million-sales mark. On April 24 his star was further burnished by a joint announcement that later this summer Microsoft would incorporate Covey’s “Seven Habits” in its time-management software.

“Why are these ideas powerful?” Covey asks. “Because they don’t belong to me. All the Seven Habits are is common sense, organized.”

Though a Republican, Covey gladly advised the President at Camp David in January. Clinton so enjoyed the meeting that he invited Covey to stay an extra night. Other than calling Clinton “a totally good student,” Covey won’t reveal what was said, but his usual practice is to ask CEOs to write a statement of their values. Another Covey fan in Washington: House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who includes Seven Habits on his “must-read” list and has called the author. Covey insists he doesn’t play political favorites: “We’re Americans first. These principles are universal.”

And as easy to digest as Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. Indeed, Covey’s maxims—”Begin with the End in Mind” (Habit No. 2) or “Think Win/Win,” (Habit No. 4)—sound like Gump with an MBA. But their bite-size simplicity, as well as their emphasis on principled behavior is part of the draw. Covey champions personal strengths such as integrity, humility and courage as keys to success. Hundreds of companies, including Coca-Cola, AT&T and General Motors, shell out up to $3,900 per person to send executives to the Covey Leadership Center in Provo for workshops in personal and organizational development.

“There wasn’t a language for this do-good approach that was acceptable in business,” says Robert Burt, a development director at Houston-based Conoco Inc., which trains its staff of 17,000 in the Seven Habits. Stedman Graham, who employs Covey’s tenets at his Chicago-based sports management firm, is another believer. “He teaches you how to develop a mission in life,” says Graham, who introduced longtime love Oprah Winfrey to Covey’s ideas.

“My goal is to bring principle-centered leadership to the world,” says Covey, who charges businesses $45,000 per speech and logs more than 300,000 air miles annually. He funnels much of his money back into his company—though he is building a three-story stucco house in Provo, not far from the family’s modest home of 28 years.

Lofty goals might be expected from a man who used to awaken as a boy to find his mother, Irene, standing over his bed, “affirming” him. “She’d be saying something like, ‘You will do well in your test tomorrow,’ ” Covey recalls. “She and my father [Stephen, a chicken farmer turned hotelier] passed along a philosophy of believing in yourself.” He needed it in high school in Salt Lake City when a bone-degrading disease required the implanting of metal pins in his legs. Says Covey, who suffers no lingering effects: “It shifted me from athletics to academics.”

His parents also imparted their Mormon faith. Serving a two-year mission in England for the church after graduating from the University of Utah in 1953, Covey met Sandra Merrill, a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, when the group performed in London. They married in 1956, and the couple moved to Boston. Covey got an MBA at Harvard, then took a job teaching organizational behavior at Brigham Young University in Provo, where he remained for 24 years. In 1983 he embarked on his new career, gambling that “a culture that had shifted away from ethics” would welcome the ideas he developed as an academic.

After the initial shock of Covey’s irrepressible style, corporate America quickly warmed to his message. It’s a reaction familiar to Sandra, 59. “When we were first married, I was embarrassed to death,” she says. “Now we’re all used to Stephen’s spontaneity.” Tell that to daughter Jenny’s prom date in 1992: Covey greeted him wearing an old-codger mask, carrying a rifle and questioning the boy’s intentions (her date laughed). “That’s my dad,” says Jenny, 19. “He’ll show up anywhere wearing a mask and acting like he’s the only one who’s normal.”


CATHY FREE in Sundance

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