How Stephen Covey's Son Helped Him See The Root of Change
By Jatinder Singh, Associate Partner, Lighthouse International
Previously we looked at the difference between the Personality and Character Ethic and how legends know that building their character and applying effective principles of living is the only way to legitimate long-term success. Stephen R. Covey (recognised as one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans) in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People says that that while the Personality Ethic has important attributes that can definitely help us become more successful, relying on techniques alone will eventually be detrimental to our lives. This is because they don't solve our problems in the long-term on their own. This article looks at why this is the case and we highlight an example from Mr Covey's own son which helped him make a powerful transformation.
Character Is The Foundation For Our Success
Mr Covey uses a powerful analogy of a building to describe character. It's the foundation to which an amazing structure can be built on. It is worked on first before the structure can be created second. However if the foundation isn't strong, the building, even if it is incredibly beautiful will eventually fall down. As he says in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
"I am not suggesting that elements of the Personality Ethic...are not beneficial, in fact sometimes essential for success. I believe they are. But these are secondary, not primary traits. ...We have inadvertently become so focused on our own building that we have forgotten the foundation that holds it up, or in reaping for so long where we have not sown, perhaps we have forgotten the need to sow."
A Flawed Character Breeds Distrust
Mr Covey gives some practical guidance to this, which most of us have probably experienced in our lives when dealing with someone whose motive we are unsure of...
"If I try to use human influence strategies and tactics of how to get other people to do what I want....while my character is fundamentally flawed, marked by duplicity and insincerity- then in the long run I cannot be successful. My duplicity will breed distrust and everything I do, even using so-called good human relation techniques- will be perceived as manipulative....only basic goodness gives life to technique."
A Personal Example of Using the Personality Ethic With His Own Son
Stephen R. Covey describes a powerful example with his own son where he focused too much on techniques and quick-fixes to change his son's behaviour. He shares how his son struggled playing baseball with other kids and how he wanted to help him improve for his own personal motives...
"Socially he [his son] was immature, often embarrassing those closest to him. Athletically, he was small, skinny, and uncoordinated..Others would laugh at him. Sandra [Stephen Covey's wife] and I were consumed with a desire to help him. We felt that if “success” were important in any area of life, it was supremely important in our role as parents. So we worked on our attitudes and behavior toward him and we tried to work on his. We attempted to psych him up using positive mental attitude techniques. “Come on, son! You can do it! We know you can...And if he did a little better, we would go to great lengths to reinforce him. “That’s good, son, keep it up.” When others laughed, we reprimanded them. “Leave him alone. Get off his back...Nothing we did seemed to help, and we were really worried. We could see the effect this was having on his self-esteem. We tried to be encouraging and helpful and positive, but after repeated failure, we finally drew back and tried to look at the situation on a different level."
He then realised that he wasn't doing it to help just his son, he wanted himself and his wife to be seen as good parents, in front of the other parents...
"At this time in my professional role I was involved in leadership development work with various clients throughout the country. In that capacity I was preparing bimonthly programs on the subject of communication and perception for IBM’s Executive Development Program participants. As I researched and prepared these presentations, I became particularly interested in how perceptions are formed, how they govern the way we see, and how the way we see governs how we behave. This led me to a study of expectancy theory and self-fulfilling prophecies or the “Pygmalion effect,” and to a realization of how deeply embedded our perceptions are. It taught me that we must look at the lens through which we see the world, as well as at the world we see, and that the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world. As Sandra and I talked about the concepts I was teaching at IBM and about our own situation, we began to realize that what we were doing to help our son was not in harmony with the way we really saw him. When we honestly examined our deepest feelings, we realized that our perception was that he was basically inadequate, somehow “behind.” No matter how much we worked on our attitude and behavior, our efforts were ineffective because, despite our actions and our words, what we really communicated to him was, “You aren’t capable. You have to be protected.” We began to realize that if we wanted to change the situation, we first had to change ourselves. And to change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions."
Legends understand that to truly change ourselves we need to become aware of and change our deeply held underlying perceptions. That's what Mr Covey did changing how he saw his son. Focusing on only changing our attitudes and behavior will be limited because the way we see is our map of the world. Personal Vision is the first principle of effective living and it's only when we examine our deepest perceptions of ourselves and others can we change them. Our experience through working with 20,000 people over the last decade has shown that very often the right support is needed to help with this and we'll be exploring this fundamental topic in future articles about Stephen R. Covey.