Johnny Covey on “Five Habits to Lead from the Heart”: An interview by Bob Morris

JohnnyIf you visit Johnny Covey’s website, you will learn that he ” is capable of bringing energy to a room where there is none, he can transform the way an event is constructed by his methods and engagement with the audience. Whether as a speaker, emcee, or trainer, he has the capacity to get people into the mode of learning, receiving, and involved with his delivery unlike any person working stages today. There is no one like him and he is going to change the world as a facilitator, thought leader, and creator. He is a once-in-a-generation speaker, trainer, and mentor. He will make a difference in many lives for generations to come.”

His latest book, 5 Habits to Lead from Your Heart: Getting Out of Your Head to Express Your Heart, was published by Made For Success (June 2016).

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Morris: Before discussing Five Habits, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Covey: My parents. Growing up was experience after experience of being able to discover who I was and they gave me the space and room to make mistakes, to try again and to really find out what it meant for me to live and lead from my heart.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Covey: Even though it was from a distance, I would say Stephen R. Covey. At 17, I read the 7 Habits and knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach people principles that would change their view of themselves and their lives, like Stephen’s book did for me. And because I knew him, he was human. I thought, “Hey, I could do that. If uncle Steve could, then I could.” We never sat down formally and talked about it but that experience itself led me on the path I’ve chosen.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Covey: We talked about the 7 Habits growing up, but it didn’t mean anything to me besides the fact that I knew my family had a great culture. I didn’t recognize the impact the book had on our existing family culture. Reading it at 17, not only did I have great insights from the book, I realized that our family had established a certain culture based on those principles. I loved my family culture, the trust and freedom I had with my parents and siblings. When I saw the principles our family operated by, I got excited to bring that to other people, to other families.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Covey: My college experience taught me I could study and devote myself for hours to learning and thinking.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Covey: I’ve never had a job. I’ve always created my own work, my own paycheck, so my learning curve included lessons in creation and execution. I wish that I had been satisfied with my gifts and my skills earlier and not wishing I had someone else’s. Much of the pain I experienced running my own business came from the expectation I created of what I should be instead of being who I was and finding those people that could support me in my business.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Covey: The Giver. Your question is about business but I think the root of business is people. In The Giver, the community is based on not feeling or expressing any emotion. The biggest challenges a business faces is creating a culture where employees can express what they think and feel instead of trying to conform to a culture of expectations of what to think and feel. Businesses can thrive if everyone can express and create, instead of being limited and confined.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Covey: Leading from your heart is the ability to have everyone express their heart. The end result is that everyone is leading, creating, contributing. True leadership and community means every contribution is valuable from every stage of understanding. Then, whatever is created truly is created by the people.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Covey: If we are very clear before we start something, what we are not willing to do, what is not best for us to do, we can create a strategy of what we will do. That could be considered the essence because stripping away the non-essentials is the first step of the process to crystalize what your strategy will be.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Covey: I think we are at the start of employees being vocal about their dissatisfaction. Employees will be unwilling and unable to not work from their heart. Employers will no longer be able to justify a paycheck in exchange for work people don’t want to do. CEOs who embrace diversity and the strengths their people have naturally will usually tackle great challenges with an ease not previously experienced. CEOs stuck in the old way of doing things, exchanging paycheck for work, without taking into account untapped contribution.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Five Habits. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to read the book ASAP.

First, when and why did you decide to write it?

Covey: In 2014, I started to believe that I could take what I had been experiencing myself and put it into a framework that I could share in written form in a way that people could understand. I decided to write it because of 7 Habits. It was always my goal to capture a principle-based framework that got to the root of the problems we faced. For me, Stephen shifted my focus from practices to principles. 5 habits allow you to personally experience the principle you already know but have not been cemented through personal experience. There’s pen to paper and then there’s rubber hitting the road. I wrote this book to give people the ability to shift themselves from being in their head to leading from the heart.

Morris: Perhaps channeling Aristotle, you recommend the development and retention of five easy habits. Please explain the reference to “easy.”

Covey: It’s easy to understand that it’s something that you not only want but need. The hard part is personally experiencing the habits. Anyone can read straight through a list, but what I tried to offer was a book with specific suggestions that would help the reader think, feel and act different ways. So, is it hard work? Yes. Are the habits easy? Yes, because they naturally synchronize themselves with how you are already living, you just have to decide if you want your life to get to the next level — whatever that may be — so you can be courageous, be you, be present, be restored and be a conscious creator.

Morris: Which of the habits seems to be most difficult to develop? Why?

Covey: Being restored is the culmination of the first three habits. It takes you to the level where you are restoring previous experiences by feeling the emotions that you felt in the most painful experiences of your life. In the end, you are restored to the state of a child: free, expressive, leading from your heart. But the actual process itself is a journey that few are willing to take to the furthest extent possible. So it’s the most rewarding habit, but also the most difficult to develop. You reap the greatest rewards because the depths you go down to catapult you into the greatest heights possible.

Morris: In your opinion, which of the habits could be most valuable to those who have direct and frequent contact with customers? Please explain.

Be you. The ability to connect with a customer, to be your natural and genuine self, is refreshing. Being yourself gives others permission to be themselves and creates an authentic connection. Being yourself allows you to be alive all the time, instead of compartmentalizing work and home and social relationships where you show up as someone other than yourself to survive.

The ground rules of the five habits are also important in customer service: being respectful and being your best, also allowing others to be their best. It takes away a lot of pain when you acknowledge that demanding or disgruntled customers have previous experiences they might be taking out on you. Their response might not be solely based on their current experience with the employee. Then, employees can treat customers with respect, not taking anything personally.

Morris: What specifically can supervisors do to help their direct reports develop all five habits?

Covey: Supervisors have got to lead the way. They have to model an open culture that encourages expression and rewards innovation. Leaders can’t be threatened by where the next good idea comes from. Leaders have to believe in the abundance of one person succeeding and we all succeed together. Leaders have to be open to failing, trying again and allowing direct reports the room to express themselves. So, specifically supervisors have to show a little vulnerability by sharing their progress within the 5 habits. And they have to open up a relationship where top can mentor bottom and bottom can mentor top. The 5 habits are based on shared experiences. Experiencing the five habits together, supervisor and direct report rise together.

Morris: Major research studies recently conducted by firms such as Gallup and Towers Watson indicate that on average, in U.S. companies, less than 30% of the employees are actively, positively, and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, working to undermine the success of their company.

In your opinion, how specifically can the process by which to develop and sustain the five habits help to increase that percentage?

Covey: Employees are disenchanted with the separation of power within companies. If employers want actively engaged productive employees, they have got to share the power of expression with their employees. Employees feel valued when they are allowed and encouraged to be themselves, Habit 2. Employers are going to benefit from helping employees work through their previous experiences with the five habits because that puts the company culture into possibility mode. Everyone is working, engaged, excited to move forward into thinking thoughts that have never been thought before so they can create results within a company that have never been achieved before.

It really does take courage to challenge what Jim O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Dante reserved the last and worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. Why do so many people find it so difficult to challenge the status quo?

It is difficult to challenge the status quo because if you do, you have to admit that there might be a better way. Admitting there might be a better way is not painful, but what is painful is the thought that you have been doing it wrong all along. That you were deficient in some way for not already knowing how to perform outside the status quo. We avoid change from the norm because we think incorrect thoughts about ourselves. The truth as we challenge the status quo is the way we have been doing things is working. The truth as we challenge the status quo is that we can be excited about progress and leaving behind the old way of doing things if a new way can serve us all better. The truth is we have always been trying our best and now our best includes changing. The truth is that change and progress never means that the old way wasn’t good enough. The truth is that change and progress means we are courageously moving forward.

Morris: You obviously agree with Polonius’ advice to son Laertes: “This above all: to thine ownself be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Also with “Oscar Wilde’s admonition, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Here’s my question: What seems to be the best advice that parents can give to their children, especially to teenagers?

Parental advice sounds hollow if parents don’t follow that advice themselves. So, I answer this question on the premise that the best advice parents can give their children is advice they are giving themselves. Two concepts that are polar opposites from the head to heart framework help us understand what’s going on in a parent/child relationship: creation or control. Control is so common when parents and teenagers are in their heads. We try to control our teenagers to force them to do what we want and our teenagers rebel and hate us for it. The best advice I have given my teenagers is from the stance of creation. “Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know or I’m sorry. It doesn’t mean that you are a loser. It means that you are willing to try again because you and the people around you are valuable. Always ask questions and listen to your conscience so that you are committed to what you are doing from your heart instead of just floating along, doing what everyone else is doing.”

Morris: To be present is to be engaged in the given situation rather than merely involved, fully aware of the circumstances, “experiencing things as they really are.” This is what Ellen Langer calls mindfulness. Dan Goleman calls it emotional intelligence. How best to become more mindful, more empathic to others?

Covey: The five habits build on each other. Be present is the third habit. You are going to be present to what is really going on around you as you listen to your conscience instructing you to be courageous and be yourself. Your conscience wants you to be aligned and progressing. You can’t see what you can’t see until the moment you see it. You start to see more, to become mindful, empathic to others as you develop courage. You courageously open your mind to the possibility that what you’re thinking about what is happening to you might not be what really is happening. You realize that your thoughts might need to change as you learn to understand what your emotions are – messages from your conscience. So when you feel a strong emotion, it’s a signal from your conscience to examine your thoughts. Are they true? Or could there be another possibility. Strengthening the skill of listening to our conscience also helps us become more mindful and aware of others.

Morris: The word “kaizen” is a Japanese term for continuous improvement and is usually associated with Toyota’s production line. For those who work there, it could also refer to their personal growth and professional development. Restoration enables us to recapture past experience that helps to nourish our heart and head as we embrace new opportunities.

How best to establish a workplace culture within which hearts as well as heads are most likely to be nourished?

Covey: Establish a culture where it’s ok to express yourself. That’s not to say we get to rip each other apart or bad mouth one another. We just have to all agree that there are no bad emotions. Emotions help us to examine our thoughts, if they are correct and aligned with our conscience or not. Establish a culture where it is ok to put a process or project on hold while we get out of our heads and express our emotions in a healthy way. Workplaces will progress and continuously improve when it is agreed that we only operate heart to heart, not head to head. If we are in our heads, misunderstanding our emotions, we can’t be in creation mode, which is the way to capture “kaizen.”

Morris: The last habit, conscious creation, is possible only if and when we have embarked on establishing the other four habits. In this instance, I think you are talking about an on-going process, not an ultimate destination. Over time, as the five habits – what we “repeatedly do” — become more durable, we gain a sense of greater freedom that would otherwise not be possible. We make better choices that produce more beneficial results.

Is it fair to say that you are referring to decision-making in all dimensions of our daily lives? Please explain.

Covey: Absolutely. Conscious creation is what we are doing whenever we are in our hearts. The five habits help you in exercising your ability to choose in any area of your life. And it certainly is a cyclical process. You return back to the five habits to find your own personal next level of thinking. Take Habit 1. You are always increasing your ability to be courageous. Your old way of being courageous comes to a plateau and you find a new way to get to the next level of courage. You are never a finished product. You gain more power to consciously create exactly what you want as you circle through the other habits.

Morris: For more than 30 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Five Habits, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Covey: Leaders in small companies would most greatly benefit from creating a mentoring community within their organizations. Mentoring is a forgotten concept. We have trainers and coaches telling us how to do it, but it becomes more personal when you’ve got someone who’s been there, done that. Think about colleagues caring about each other’s outcomes, personally and professionally. The mentoring relationship combats the feelings of wrong and alone. And those are the two emotions that keep us in our heads, unable to progress. Instead, you feel like someone is with you, invested in your success. And that is when you can create.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Covey: I wish you had asked me: “Why is it worth it to learn the language of the five habits to lead from your heart?” It’s fairly extensive and could easily be overwhelming. The answer is this: The work gives you quick paydays. The framework helps you to understand what has been holding you back. And it shows you the steps to take to remove those stumbling blocks that are there. One of the best parts about the 5 habits is that you start exactly where you stand. There are no prerequisites except a willingness to take a step forward. It is well worth it to learn the language of the five habits because then you are able to take as many steps forward as you want. There is no limit after you understand how to find out what to do next.

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Johnny cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

The 5 Habits website link

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