The news came in an email from my brother Mike on Monday afternoon, July 16. Stephen Covey, 79, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, had died earlier in the day. The news left a little hole in my heart.

I had never met Covey. But I felt I knew him from reading several of his books — and even more, from viewing several of his videos time and again as I presented his 7 Habits seminar. In fact, Covey’s books and seminars play large roles in the backstory of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute.

More than a decade ago, Covey spoke to the U.S. bishops at their annual spring meeting. On his first day back to the office Bishop Thomas G. Doran, Bishop of Rockford (IL), asked me if I was familiar with him. I said that I was, adding that the leadership team in my office had read his 7 Habits book and discussed it at length. He also asked me about Covey’s training program. I said I didn’t know anything about it but would check it out and get back to him.

After the bishop finished Covey’s book, we sat down to discuss the possibility of presenting Covey’s seminar to the priests and lay leaders of the diocese. A few years before, I had developed a no-frills, biblically-based, half-day program on Christian leadership that we had presented once or twice in the diocese. But Covey’s extensive 3-day program offered a mix of videos, exercises and discussion topics that I was eager to explore, so I agreed to get certified to present the program. 

About a year later, the work done, I shared my excitement with Bishop Doran. Soon after, the diocese’s Vicar for Clergy & Religious was arranging a 3-day retreat for the diocese’s junior clergy, a group of about 30 men who had been ordained less than five years.

Responses to the program were interesting. Some priests loved it, saying they found it implicitly Christian from beginning to end. Others liked it but wondered why they had been asked to spend three days focused on content that made no mention of anything Christian, much less Catholic. (Covey was a practicing Mormon, but he took great pains to extricate any explicitly religious references from his books and seminar.) All the priests agreed that the only way their colleagues would attend a 3-day leadership development program was if their bishop required it.

We shared the evaluations with the bishop, noting their overall favorable character. But I recommended that we keep on looking for a leadership development program that was explicitly Christian and shorter than three days. The bishop encouraged me to proceed along those lines.

Soon after, by an implausibly complex series of events stretching from Florida to New York to California, I fell upon — or the Spirit guided me to — a brand new program called Lead Like Jesus developed by Ken Blanchard, coauthor of the One Minute Manager. Blanchard was my main leadership-management guru dating back to frantic days as publisher and COO of a for-profit publishing company. 

Soon I was in a Chicago coffee shop discussing the new program with Blanchard’s Lead Like Jesus co-founder and co-author, Phil Hodges. And soon after that I was on my way with friend and colleague Dick Kunnert to American Martyrs Retreat House near Waterloo, IA, to attend one of Hodges’ first 2-day Lead Like Jesus Encounters.

On the drive home, Dick and I spent about an hour and a half discussing all the things we liked about the Lead Like Jesus Encounter. Then we spent about an hour and a half discussing what we would like to add to it for Catholic audiences. By the time our trip home was over, we had the seeds of the S3 Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus Encounter, and were beginning to discuss how and where we could plant those seeds. 

Because the program was explicitly Christian, was just two days long - and because they let us add elements that are explicitly Catholic while shortening the basic program to just a single day — I haven’t led a Covey seminar in more than a decade. Nevertheless, I still heartily recommend his books to anyone who wants to optimize his or her life in ways that are absolutely compatible with Christian principles.

If all the colleges and universities in the country got together and required every student to read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People before they could get a diploma, the world would be a better place. As Adrian Zackheim, president and publisher of Portfolio, a business imprint at Penguin Group (USA), explains: "It wasn't about how to be a manager or how or to run a company. It was about how to conduct yourself.” 

If all the adults in the country were then somehow persuaded to read The Eighth Habit, the world would be better still.

Over the years, the Covey franchise has grown to include his son Stephen and a host of titles, one focused onleadership, another on families, and yet another on teens. I recommend them all. 

None of them explicitly addresses the critical role of faith in one’s life and development. But they were written by a faith-filled husband, father of nine and grandfather of 52, who gratefully leaves the rest of us with an incredible legacy with which to become better spouses, parents, grandparents, priests, religious, team players and leaders — in a word, better persons.

I hope you are or will become a beneficiary of that legacy. And may God richly bless Stephen Covey. 

Owen Phelps, Ph.D. 
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

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