2016 Volume 19 Issue 1

“Live Your Life in Crescendo”

“Live Your Life in Crescendo”

Moral Insights for Leaders from Stephen R. Covey

In July of 2012, Dr. Stephen R. Covey, one of Time Magazine’s 25 “most influential Americans,”[1] passed away—about four months after a head injury suffered while riding his racing bike.[2] Covey was 79 years of age, and his regimen of personal fitness, which led to his death, reflected his commitment to what he often cited as the four key elements of his life: mental, spiritual, emotional and physical good health.[3] Covey was still at it in his efforts to maintain physical fitness, although he was nearing the end of his eighth decade of self-improvement—a quest for excellence that he sought in all areas of his personal life.

Covey’s mantra, “Live your life in crescendo, not diminuendo,” was exemplified by his commitment to physical fitness and personal excellence at an age when his peers would be much more likely to spend their time riding a rocking chair than a racing bike. Covey explained in his 2011 book, The Third Alternative, that, despite his mature years, he had at least eight more books to write and a corresponding set of other important tasks and priorities in other dimensions of his busy life.[4] As we discover that often unimagined potential and find our voice, Covey taught that we achieve organizational success and also personal fulfillment—whether as leaders or followers.

Covey, like Mahatma Gandhi, who he admired and often quoted, sought to live the ideal “My life is my message.”[5] And Stephen R. Covey left a legacy of rich moral insights to guide leaders, managers and others who strive to “discover their own voice and then help others to discover theirs.”[6] In this brief article, we identify ten moral insights that Stephen R. Covey offered to the business world that epitomized his insights as one of America’s most highly regarded management consultants and leadership gurus. These insights have been gleaned from Covey’s speeches, books and stories shared with others.

  1. Discover what matters and put first things first. Among his seven habits of highly effective people, Covey identified the tremendous importance of defining the virtues and values that have long-term and even eternal importance in our lives.[7] Although a widely published management scholar, Covey’s doctorate was actually earned in his thoughtful study of religion and he often acknowledged that his practical business insights had their source in divine eternal principles.[8] Covey’s counsel to others was inevitably to challenge them to not subrogate that which matters most to that which actually matters least and to prioritize important tasks.
  2. Treat others as valued ends, rather than as the means to your own priorities. Covey emphasized the Kantian verity that leaders and organizations never have the right to treat others as less important than themselves. His leadership philosophy, he often said, adopted the viewpoint of loving “grandparent” who helped loved ones by treating them so well that they recognized their great potential and strived to achieve it. Great organizations, Covey explained, have the moral obligation to create value for society while simultaneously helping their team members to achieve their highest potential. This moral ideal follows Covey’s definition of leadership as “communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.”[9]
  3. Combine the search for knowledge with the pursuit of wisdom. Covey’s constant commitment to learning, his lifelong research about leadership, and his dedication to discovering “correct principles” always focused on the practical application of knowledge and honoring the duties owed to stakeholders.[10] Wisdom, he taught, came from understanding and magnifying one’s moral responsibilities to society, to self, to family, to colleagues, but also to God.[11] Covey constantly reminded us that competence without character failed to achieve long-term value[12]—just as character without competence was also insufficient to achieve desired outcomes.[13]
  4. Achieve personal integrity by maintaining a life of balance. Repeatedly, Covey reminded us that a man or woman could not succeed in life if one of the key four dimensions of their lives was out of balance.[14] Honoring duties to others—fulfilling personal, family, and work goals in all facets of one’s life—required a life that did not compromise the truth, deny personal responsibility, or take advantage of others in pursuit of self-interest.[15] Citing the wisdom of Mark Twain’s character, Huckleberry Finn,[16] Covey often reminded us that we cannot successfully live a lie and simultaneously have a conscience that enjoyed inner peace.[17]
  5. Listen to discover inner truth. Deeply committed to the importance of each person understanding the tremendous power of personal conscience, Covey often encouraged his clients and audiences to “Listen to your heart of hearts.”[18] Citing the French philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, Covey shared his personal belief that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”[19] Conscience, Covey taught, is a constant reminder of what we know down deep that is really true and confirms what we ought to do in our lives. That same conscience was one of four key factors for each one of us in discovering and honoring our highest personal potential.[20]
  6. Balance preparation and performance. Covey repeatedly emphasized the importance of proper preparation and thoughtful reflection as a critical condition precedent to productive action.[21] Efficiency in achieving the wrong goal or quickly putting up a ladder that is leaning against the wrong wall were metaphors he commonly used in counseling his listeners to make sure that they were properly prepared before they took action.[22] Though an advocate for effective action, Covey also explained the critical importance of the “Ready, Aim, Fire” sequence.[23]
  7. Earn trust by being trustworthy. Trust, Covey often declared, was the critical glue that bound relationships and organizations together.[24] He explained that trust was the personal choice to relinquish one’s power to another, expecting that the other party will honor mutually shared commitments and expectations.[25] Trustworthiness, he noted, was always subjectively determined by the party who chose whether to follow another[26]—and the leader had a moral obligation to understand, honor, and always protect the best interests and welfare of those from whom trust was sought.[27]
  8. Never settle for “good” when “great” is possible. Covey declared that good was really never good enough when a better alternative was available.[28] Stakeholders, he counseled, had a moral obligation to pursue not only their best possible outcome, but an outcome that also achieved the best possible results for those with whom they were seeking a mutual solution.[29] Pursuing a short-term benefit that compromised trust and destroyed a critical relationship was the epitome of foolishness, Covey explained.[30] Covey shared the insight of Pepperdine’s own George L. Graziado, the founder and benefactor of its School of Business and Management, who frequently noted that “If better is possible, then good is not enough.”
  9. Treat others humanely and with authentic caring: Covey reminded managers and leaders to constantly keep in mind the profoundly human nature of followers and the moral duties owed by leaders to those whom they served. He explained that: 1) people want to be used creatively, 2) they want to be kindly treated, and 3) they want to be fairly paid.[31] Covey also reminded managers and leaders of their own human needs. Successful leaders acknowledge that no individual is perfect and allow themselves and others to make mistakes. Great leaders are also totally genuine and sincere in dealing with others and in solving problems.[32]
  10. Make a difference constantly: Covey’s personal example provides a great lesson in being an exemplar of someone committed to constantly make a difference in this world. His writings consistently encouraged leaders and followers to discover and utilize their highest potential.[33] Covey explained, “I have a sacred stewardship to contribute and not to retire to leisure. Also, the greatest way to serve my 50 grandkids is not just to love them and tend to their interests and needs, but to be an example of someone who is constantly making a difference in the world.”[34]

truth shutterstock_193134332 smMuch more than simply a management consultant and expert on leadership and organizations, Stephen R. Covey was equally a moral philosopher who passionately cared about people and society.[35] He often described people as futilely seeking to defy the immutable laws of truth that govern their lives. “We cannot break these laws or live in conflict with principles of truth,” he often said, “although we will inevitably find that we ‘break ourselves” against them.”

Each of Covey’s moral principles, he explained, was achieved by looking within—and his approach was consistently “inside-out” in its moral focus.[36] Increasingly, management scholars like Stanford’s Jeff Pfeffer, Harvard’s Lynn Paine and Clayton Christensen, Michigan’s Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn, and the University of California at Berkeley’s Robert Reich have echoed Covey’s moral insights about the need to combine morally sound principles with empirical evidence in creating organizations that compete successfully in a global marketplace that requires excellence at every turn.[37] Practitioners and leaders seeking to become optimally effective can benefit by studying Covey’s moral insights and implementing their truths within their own organizations.

Only by recognizing our highest potential in our own lives are leaders and managers likely to follow Covey’s personal motto to “Live life in crescendo, not in diminuendo.” As we discover that often unimagined potential and find our voice, we achieve organizational success and also the personal fulfillment that Stephen R. Covey earnestly sought for each one of us—whether leading or following.


[1] See http://www.the3rdalternative.com/bio/ for a partial summary of Stephen R. Covey’s most outstanding accomplishments.

[2] The account of Dr. Covey’s death is found in many places, including The Salt Lake Tribune account by Tom Harvey on July 16, 2012.

[3] Throughout Covey’s work, these four key areas are identified. Perhaps the most complete summary is in Covey, S.F. (2004). The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[4] Covey explains this mantra and his commitment to living a life “in crescendo” in the Appendix of Covey, S.R. (2011). The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[5] A brief description of the context in which Gandhi made this statement is described on page 61 of Covey, S.M.R. & Merrill, R.R. (2006). The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything. New York: Simon & Schuster

[6] This leadership responsibility is the key responsibility of leaders enumerated in Covey’s The 8th Habit.

[7] Covey, S.R. (2013). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York: Simon & Schuster. This book was first published in 1989 and has been recognized by Chief Executive Magazine as one of the two most influential books of the 20th century. “Putting first things first” was one of Covey’s seven habits.

[8] Covey often told his students that his writing was just a secular version of The Divine Center, a book Covey first wrote in 1982, which has been republished in several editions.

[9] This definition of leadership and its core roots is found in Covey, S.R. (2004), p. 98.

[10] The importance of value-based and principle-centered leadership is included throughout Covey’s writings and was articulated in Covey, S.R. (1992). Principle-Centered Leadership. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[11] Covey’s articulation of our moral duties to the multiple stakeholders in our lives is expressed well in The 8th Habit, Covey, S.R. (2004).

[12] Trustworthiness, he explained, required both key elements in Principle-Centered Leadership, Covey, S.R. (1992).

[13] This same point is made well by other scholars, such as Pfeffer, J. (1998). The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[14] Covey acknowledged that the importance of balance in pursuing a virtuous life was addressed best by Aristotle, Aristotle & Brown, L. (2009). The Nichomachean Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

[15] Covey, S.R. (2004).

[16] In Clemens, S. (1884), Chapter 31. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Clemens has Finn conclude after failing to pray while not being honest with God, “You can’t pray a lie–I found that out.”

[17] Covey’s insights reflect his PhD in Religion and are well expressed in The Divine Center, Covery, S.R. (1982).

[18] Covey repeatedly told his audiences that one’s conscience or “heart of hearts” would reveal to them the truth (cf. Covey, S.R., 2004). This point is also well made in Shay, R. (2009). Heart of Hearts: Nature of Reality and How to Listen to Your Heart of Hearts to Find True Peace, Joy and Love. Holland: M. C. Escher Company.

[19]Covey frequently referenced Pierre Teilhard De Chardin’s often-cited quote, which may be found online at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/p/pierreteil160888.html.

[20] Explained in detail in Covey, S. R. (2004).

[21] Covey’s Seven Habits (2013) contains his reference to maintaining “P/PC balance”–referring to Production and Production Capability. The concept is an essential element of the habit to “Sharpen the Saw.”

[22] Covey introduced these metaphors in Principle-Centered Leadership (1992).

[23] Covey emphasized the importance of understanding one’s goals and focus as part of the habit, “Begin With the End in Mind,” Covey, S.R. (2013).

[24] Although Covey examined the importance of trust in virtually every presentation and book that he wrote, this specific point is made in Chapter One of The 8th Habit, Covey, S.R. (2004).

[25] Compare this same definition with Caldwell, C. and Dixon, R. (2010). “Love, Forgiveness and Trust: Critical Values of the Modern Leader,” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 93, no. 1, 91–101.

[26] Trust is widely recognized as a subjectively perceived and individually viewed decision. See Mayer, R.C., Davis, J.H. & Schoorman (1995). “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust,” Academy of Management Review, Vol. 20, no. 3, for the definitive discussion of trust and trustworthiness.

[27] Covey repeatedly addresses the moral duty of leaders to care about the welfare and growth of others in Covey, S.R. (2004).

[28] Reflecting on the moral pursuit of excellence, Covey embraced the concept that “Good is the enemy of great.” Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap. . .and Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins.

[29] This point is the fundamental message of the habit “Win-Win or No Deal” and The 3rd Alternative, Covey, S.R. (2011).

[30] Ibid.

[31] This point is well made in Covey’s discussion of the leader’s obligation to others in The 8th Habit, Covey, S.R. (2004). See also Max DePree’s Leadership is an Art, Chapter 1, for a similar message. DePree, M. (2004). Leadership is an Art. New York: Dell Publishing.

[32] Covey repeatedly acknowledged the importance of dealing with others humanely and with love in his many presentations to audiences, in Principle-Centered Leadership, Covey, S.R. (1992) and in The 8th Habit, Covey, S.R., (2004).

[33] Covey, S.R. (2004).

[34] Quote found at the Stephen R. Covey blog “Live Life in Crescendo” online at http://www.stephencovey.com/blog/?p=30

[35] Eulogy for Stephen R. Covey in The New York Times on July 7, 2012 found at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/17/business/stephen-r-covey-herald-of-good-habits-dies-at-79.html?_r=0

[36] Covey, S.R. (1992).

[37] Each of these highly esteemed scholars has written extensively about the importance of moral leadership and their works can be found in print in many books and academic journals.

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Authors of the article
Zuhair Hasan
Zuhair Hasan, is a mechanical engineer in Atlanta, Georgia with more than 17 years of experience and currently pursuing PhD in business administration from the NorthCentral University in Arizona focusing on management and leadership.
Cam Caldwell, PhD
Cam Caldwell, obtained his PhD degree from Washington State University in 2004 where he was a Thomas S. Foley graduate fellow. He has co-authored over seventy publications about leadership, trust, and ethics and his book about moral leadership was published in 2012 by Business Expert Press.
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