Stephen Covey made me really mad twenty years ago and it’s only recently that I’ve come to realize that he was right, I was wrong, and I owe him an apology.
Covey, of course, passed away a few days ago, and so I clearly missed the opportunity to express my mea culpas while he still was alive. The good news is he never knew I was upset; I never actually told him. But, in my heart, I still feel compelled to share the story (maybe he can read this where he is) and (if not) hope very much that it will be of great help to you.
It was 1991. The 60-year-old bank where I was working had just suffered some massive loan losses, and the future of the firm suddenly was in peril.
It was a peculiar company in the sense that many of the people working there – my wife and best friends included – really had never worked anywhere else. We’d begun our careers there in our early twenties, and hadn’t yet had enough life experience to know that banks could fail, people could lose jobs, life was inherently uncertain and, despite it all, we would be ok. So, when news came out that our stock price had plummeted and more big losses were imminent, a lot of us descended into fear.
Our bank had an annual meeting where every manager in the firm was invited. It was part of my responsibilities to plan and execute this event – and that included the selection of a keynote speaker. In light of the sudden change-of-fate the bank was experiencing, I decided we needed a presenter who could lift us up. Someone who would inspire us to believe we could turn things around and to keep our hopes high.
Working with a speaker’s bureau, I hired Stephen Covey to come speak; but there was one caveat to the selection. I wanted to have a conversation with him prior to the event, and to share my intentions for the meeting and lay out my expectations for his address. Covey willingly agreed to meet, and we had an almost hour-long chat. When we were done, I was absolutely certain he knew I wanted the most upbeat speech possible.
Covey didn’t waste a minute of his speech before annoying me. Acknowledging our bank’s setback, he immediately launched into the story of Victor Frankl, a German Jew imprisoned in Nazi death camps “where he experienced things so repugnant to our sense of decency that we shutter to even repeat them.” Covey told the audience that Frankl was mercilessly tortured, never knew moment-to-moment what his fate would be, and suffered through the deaths of his parents, brother and wife – most in the gas chambers.
Honestly, I wasn’t mature enough at the time to understand why Covey thought such a distressing story could some how restore our spirits. In light of our recent conversation, I perceived his tale to be a complete downer, and I think I mostly tuned out the rest of what he had to say.
But here’s what Covey did go on to express, and why it was so relevant to all of us listening.