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What’s the Secret to a Highly Effective Life?

Author Stephen Covey shares his problem-solving tips

Editor's note: Best-selling author and motivational speaker Stephen Covey, 79, died July 16 of complications from a bicycle accident in April. This interview from April is one of his last.

Stephen Covey, known worldwide for his novel ideas about leadership and problem solving, starts any one-on-one conversation with these words: “How are you?”

Stephen Covey, author of 'The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.'

Alan Levenson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Stephen Covey

Covey listens intently to your response. Then he asks about your family, your work, your life. It’s startlingly deferential behavior for someone named one of Time magazine’s “25 most influential Americans.”

It’s also vintage Covey. Now in his 80th year, the Utah-based author (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) not only practices empathy but preaches it: “When you show deep empathy toward others,” he says, “their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”

Covey’s latest book, The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems, explains how this creativity can enable two parties at odds to fashion something better than either one had imagined: “It’s not a compromise. It’s different in kind.”

Covey is still writing, though he’s cut back on traveling to spend more time with his wife, Sandra (to say nothing of their nine children, 52 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren). He recently shared his wisdom on staying connected with others and finding one’s greatest worth in the second stage of life.

Q. Define leadership.

A. It means communicating other people’s worth and potential — the gifts and talents they have — so clearly to them that they see it in themselves.

Q. You recommend avoiding comparisons between people.

A. Yeah, that can nurture a “scarcity mentality” — the idea that because one person gets a piece of the pie, there’s less for everyone else. Instead, I have an “abundance mentality”: When people are genuinely happy at the successes of others, the pie gets larger.

Q. Our society tends to marginalize older people. What can we do about that?

A. Well, don’t buy into that view. Instead, become an active leader by seeking to understand and meet the needs and challenges of others.

Q. How would that work in an interaction with, say, a grandson?

A. Put yourself in his shoes. You might say, “What’s going on with you? What challenges are you facing at school or at home?” You’d also spend time with him, with no agenda other than to understand his world. Over time, your grandson will start to feel, “Wow. My grandma (or grandpa) really knows me, and I like being with them. I can tell they’re interested in me.” 

Q. So, in effect, older people don’t need to have all the answers?

A. Right. We’ve experienced so much of life, but we don’t want to become less curious. Keep your heart open to others. Spend time. That creates natural opportunities to connect and share your wisdom, especially with those in your closest circle of influence.

Q. What’s the best thing you can do for your grandchildren?

A. One simple thing: Affirm their parents. Those parents are in the whirlwind of life. They may start to doubt themselves during this time, so the greatest thing you can do for your grandchildren is to tell their parents, “I remember how hard this was, but you’re doing a great job.”

Q. You also say our best days are ahead, no matter what our age.

A. Yes. I call this “living life in crescendo.” Your most important work is always ahead of you, never behind you. This takes people out of victimization and blaming, and they start becoming active forces in making good things happen.

You can retire from a job, but don’t ever retire from making extremely meaningful contributions in life. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with golf — but there’s so much more to do!

Maureen Mackey is a writer and editor based in New York.