The most powerful thing about Stephen, honestly, is that he really was, truly, who he said he was. —Matt Townsend
SALT LAKE CITY — When Sean Covey was playing football at BYU, his father would sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to attend his games.
In one such instance, Stephen Covey made special arrangements to make it back from a work assignment overseas to watch his boy play. Sean Covey remembers the game wasn't his best.
"I played terrible," he told the Deseret News Monday. "After the game, he waited for me outside of the locker room and I came out and he hugged me and said, 'Sean you were marvelous out there today.' I said, 'No, Dad, that was the worst game I ever had.' He said, 'No. You were getting beat up and you kept getting up. I've never been so proud of you.'
"It made me feel so good. You talk to any one of us kids and the first thing we would say about our dad is that he affirmed the individual, always. He believed in you and was so positive and that's how he was with everyone."
Stephen R. Covey, who made his name teaching and encouraging millions through his bestselling book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," died Monday at the age of 79.
Covey passed away at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center at 2:15 a.m. due to "residual effects" of an April bicycling accident. Sean Covey said the entire family had attended a reunion in Montana for the Fourth of July holiday, but most of the family had since returned to their homes.
"A few days before he was coming home, he started to decline," Covey said of his father. "He had that bike accident in April and he's been weakening since. We didn't think he would go so soon, but he, all of the sudden, woke up and wasn't feeling well."
All of Covey's nine children made it back to Idaho Falls Sunday. Covey's wife, Sandra, and each of his children were with him at the time of his death.
"It was what he always wished for and a great way to end," Sean Covey said.
Covey was once named one of Time magazine's 25 Most Influential Americans and he authored a number of books focused on leadership. "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" has sold more than 20 million copies in 38 languages. Covey also founded the Covey Leadership Center, which merged with Franklin Quest in 1997 to form FranklinCovey Co., a company focused on leadership, strategy and individual effectiveness.
Matt Townsend spent nine years working at FranklinCovey, and four of them working on books with Covey himself, before founding the Townsend Relationship Center. He lauded the man as "a pioneer" who focused on principles over practices and said no one exemplified those traits as much as Covey himself.
"The most powerful thing about Stephen, honestly, is that he really was, truly, who he said he was," Townsend said Monday. "He never was out there to entertain you. … He was consistent and he was thorough.
"With Stephen Covey, you knew he was passionate about his principles that he believed in and really felt, sincerely, that he was changing the world. He had a deep mission."
Townsend said Covey's legacy is in trying to share that sense of purpose and mission with others, helping others find powers in themselves. It was something Townsend learned firsthand.
"(Covey) will always, forever, be an icon in my world," he said. "All of my thinking processes come from what he laid out — concepts and ideas I was able to hang my life on. Every time I pull something out, it still has a little bit of Stephen on it."
As news of his death circulated, Covey was remembered by both fans of his messages who authored numerous Facebook posts and some of Utah's political leaders.
"Utah lost a great leader today," U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said of Covey in a statement. "His innovative thinking and common-sense approach to business, success and life has been taught to hundreds of thousands of people across the country and around the world and will be followed for generations. He deeply cared about others, his family, and our country and will be missed by many."
This was echoed in statements from both Gov. Gary Herbert and U.S. Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, who offered their condolences to Covey's family and spoke of the impact he had on so many.
“He was an inspiration to millions, a revolutionary problem solver, and an icon for business managers everywhere," Lee said. "It is impossible to calculate the immense amount of good that Stephen Covey did for so many people. His insight helped to shape the future of an untold number of businesses, resulting in better jobs and indeed better lives for people around the world.”
Herbert called Covey "a good friend," who will be missed.
"His combination of intellect and empathy made him a truly unique and visionary individual," Herbert said. "The skills he taught and, as importantly, the personal example provided by the life he led, will continue to bless the lives of many."
Born in 1932 in Salt Lake City, Covey eventually served an LDS mission to England where he was asked to train other missionaries and branch presidents of LDS Church congregations, according to a 1994 article in Fortune magazine. Covey said in the article that he believed that experience helped alter the course of his life.
"I had no idea at all I could train leaders," Covey said. "I was totally overwhelmed, and nonplussed, and my mission president just said, 'You can do it.' That was very significant."
Not long after, at the young age of 29, Covey was called to serve as the first president of the Ireland Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Warren Tate, of Holladay, spent his entire mission under the leadership of Covey whose young age, Tate said, only made him easier to relate to.
"He was so dynamic and engaging with all of us," Tate said Monday. "He was a powerful teacher as he has always been. … I really came to know that he was a real genuine person and that what I was hearing in public settings was exactly how he lived inside."
Tate said when he got off the plane in Belfast, Covey was there to meet him. Tate had assumed he would get a nice meal at the mission home, but Covey had different ideas. Instead, the man drove Tate and another new missionary downtown, where Covey stood on the steps of a bank and began to teach.
"All kinds of people gathered around, there were hecklers in his face," Tate recalled. "At one point, he looked at me and said, 'We have two brand new missionaries here and I would like Elder Tate to pick up where I'm leaving off.' I think what he was trying to teach us is that you have to risk something, put yourself in tough situations to grow, and his expectation was that you would do that."
Tate said that in the near 50 years since that time in Ireland, and as he has developed a career in commercial real estate, he often asks himself, "What would President Covey do?" and refers to things Covey said and taught him, including:
“If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”
"To live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy."
"In my most challenging and difficult moments, I have deferred to him," Tate said. "Everything he said and taught, he has lived. … He has never disappointed me. Some people fail in their family lives or don't measure up here and there. His life has been in absolute congruity with what he has taught. He never let me down."
Greg Link, a friend and business partner who knew Covey for 25 years, said Covey always wanted to be an educator and was supported in that effort by his mother.
Covey graduated from the University of Utah, went on to earn a master's in business administration from Harvard and received a doctorate from Brigham Young University. He went on to receive a number of honorary doctorates and many of the state's universities issued statements at his passing.
Before writing "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," Covey was a professor at BYU and Link said he learned much of what he wrote from his time as a BYU professor.
Covey loved that his book "The Leader in Me" is used as the basic curriculum at more than 600 leadership academies for students in grades K-12. The expanse of his teachings spanned from young students to corporations, Link said, as FranklinCovey has worked with 75 percent of the companies on the Fortune 500 list.
"He was one of the great leadership minds of his generation and the reason is because he taught correct principles, he taught them basic principles (and) those principles apply regardless of the industry," Link said.
Townsend said Covey has transformed Utah into a "mecca" of training and leadership and his impact is hard to measure. But Sean Covey said his father's legacy is rooted in his family, which was his "greatest love."
"He always said, 'The greatest work you'll ever do are in the four walls of your home' and he meant it," he said. "He was always so careful about his time."
In 2003, Stephen Covey received the National Fatherhood Award, which he once said was “the most meaningful award” he had been given. Sean Covey said he cultivated a family culture in which friendships spanned generations.
"He worked really hard to get us all together and teach us and create a culture of love and care for each other and … positive peer pressure to do the right thing," he said. "I think that is what his greatest legacy would be, the love, concern and kindness that he had for all of us."