I’m racing against the speeding train of the future. I am trying to get to the track-switch before the speeding train of humanity arrives at the switch point. It’s vital. If the train doesn’t switch direction the track it’s on will take it right off a cliff.
Fortunately I am not running alone. Millions of us are running to various switch-points where we will collectively raise our arms on the giant levers and pull with all our might to push the rails in a new direction that will take humanity to a future of sustainable abundance.
I am one of the older runners. In fact some people wonder why I’m still running at all. At times, the lure of retirement is seductive. My major interests require health and vitality yet today I get eye injections to fight creeping cloudiness. Last year I spent months with heart specialists who were worried that my heart might just switch off. That seems much less likely now. Yet I find that no matter how much good food I eat and bad food I avoid and how many days I walk 3 miles and sneak in an hour-long surf the warranty on my body parts is coming to an end. I feel a lot like an old car that requires constant tune-ups, frequent oil changes and a new set of tires.
But if that’s what it takes, that’s what I will do because I am still running. You see I have unfinished business. I was thrilled this year with the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. With 25 million copies sold it is one of the most read business books in the world. I believe it’s truly a great book. One that is practical as well as inspiring. One that almost never got written. I remember vividly the day that Stephen Covey (above) walked into my office so exhausted from his repeated teaching of the Seven Habits workshop that he wanted to move on to something else. “Something in leadership” he said.
I tried to commiserate with him while I told him that he would never produce anything as relevant and life-changing to more people than the Seven Habits. He looked at me with very tired eyes and said “I hope that isn’t so.” He had a right to be exhausted. His speaking was the financial engine of the company and we were investing heavily in the future. Brad Anderson and I had recently finished a successful tour of our most supportive clients raising money to develop the Seven Habits video-based training course so that certified trainers could teach. We were young and stoked because this would be the tool that would let us reach millions worldwide… if we could just ignite widespread demand.
That seems quite unlikely to almost everybody at the time, especially Stephen.
It’s true, we had gold-plated clients like Disney and Procter& Gamble but every client was a hard-fought win. Sales cycles were 12 to 18 months. We were doing the business version of trench warfare. What we needed was a book. A big bestseller. But Stephen was too busy to write something he was proud of. We had tried many editors and ghostwriters but none of them could capture Stephens’ voice, so on that day Stephen wanted to give up on the idea of a book.
When he left my office I felt twin motives of compassion for his discouragement and a passion to solve the problem. In that instant I turned to the bookshelf behind a and gazed at a thick transcript of eight hours of recorded video training of Stephen delivering the Seven Habits in front of a live audience. This was destined to be the core of our new training program. But as I looked at that transcript what I saw was every core principle and every great story expressed in perfect cadence in Stephen’s own voice.
Within an hour I had taken the section known as the Emotional Bank Account and given it to Roger Merrill to work on with his wife Rebecca over the weekend to see if they can transform the recorded word into the written word. By Monday they had. And it was perfect. Within a few days we sent that section to Stephen’s literary agent and within a month we had a real book deal with Simon & Schuster. I soon found out that writing a good book is not the same as selling it.
A year after publication the publisher announced that they were going to end the hardback edition and issue it in paperback. We had sold 300,000 copies. The publisher was pleased but I was devastated. We needed to sell millions of books to create sustained demand for our training. Even 300,000 books had done little to generate organic interest in our training. It was time to make a decision.
I have found every success story has a moment of truth where you either go all in or shrink.
I talk about this cautiously because we only tend to hear the stories of mind-boggling success. Yet there are many more stories of risking it all and losing all. That’s what makes going all in so hard. By this time we had a nice slow-growing training business. We were then faced with investing in a risky national speaking tour. The plan, developed by Greg Link, a wild man marketer, was to rent 3,000 seat symphony halls in 17 major U.S. cities to enable Stephen to do three-hour mass workshops.
Greg was a great believer in critical mass by getting lots of people to experience the same message at the same time. He wanted to engage entire business communities of cities to create a chorus of buzz. He beat back more reasonable people inside our company who were willing to support venues for 300 people but thought selling 3,000 tickets at a time was impossible. But Greg would have none of it.
The task and expense of direct mail and outbound call center to sell tickets was huge. Ultimately Greg and I convinced Stephen to give the green light while risking the company’s future and his own financial well-being on this audacious plan.
Fortunately it worked.
Some of the events made money, some lost money. But midway through the tour our phones started ringing. Companies were calling us to bring the training to them as fast as we could. The new paperback version was flying of the shelf and we never looked back. Even today, 25 years laterThe Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is frequently a top 10 business bestseller.
The reason we fought so hard for so long and spit in the eye of risk is that we really believed in what we were doing. The consequences of failure were tiny compared to the consequences of success. We were also very lucky.
But I personally still have some unfinished business.
We launched the Seven Habitstraining in major corporations in the 1980s. It was an audacious message to bring to business at a time when Milton Friedman’s ridiculous contention that ‘corporations only responsibility was to make money’ was gaining massive traction. Our training had leaders writing personal mission statements, striving for life balance, negotiating win-win solutions, collaborating respectfully and espousing the balance between seeking golden eggs and taking care of the goose. We did this at the same time the movie Wall Street eloquently portrayed our emerging economic system that legalized greed.
During the last three decades there has been a war going on for the souls of leaders.
It’s the same war I entered into at the beginning of my career. In some ways it’s sad that a book like The Seven Habits which is rooted in the universal morality of the Golden Rule and calls people to aspire to express their highest selves would be so popular at the same time our economic system has become so corrupting. We are at a point of major system failure. Our finance-based economic system rewards and gives power to people with pathological self-interest. For our children to inherit a world we want them to live in this must change.
There are small and mighty forces that are focused on positively changing the way we all think about the purpose of work, our economy, business and society. The opposing force of the powerful status quo is well financed and very noisy. They are both powerful and stupid. They justify what is unjustifiable. Yes, we can defeat them.
I honestly believe that SMART-Power thinking and leadership practice combined with the essence of conscious capitalism and new structures like B-corporations can become the business norm as a new generation of leaders and more women ascend into leadership.
My job is to equip them with tools that will enable them to lead, innovate and out-compete business as usual.
This can’t be done with soft ideas of asking people to behave better. This can only be done by resolving the paradox of hard and soft leadership, science and spirit, discipline and love, action and reflection. This is the core of wisdom.
It is time for aggressive wisdom.
So the reason I still run alongside humanities’ train is that not only do I want people be more personally effective… I want a future that creates more effective institutions so that our best ideas, our most inspiring hopes, and our moral imaginations can prevail.
And one thing I notice that makes me smile is that today there’re a lot more people running with me.