Following a strange directive given by one of the nation's most prominent management gurus, 700 local business leaders squinted their eyes shut Tuesday as they sat in the Buffalo Convention Center.
"Don't peek," said Stephen Covey as he paced the cavernous room. "OK, now point north. Keep pointing. Now, open your eyes."
A wave of laughter filled the hall as fingers pointed in every direction. Covey, whose book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" has sold more than 13 million copies, challenged participants to perform a similar exercise the next time they're at work. He urged each of them to ask the first 10 people they encounter one simple question: what is the purpose of the organization? The responses, he said, would tell them whether everyone is using the same road map.
The words "map" and "paradigm" popped up often as Covey presented a model for more effective leadership. Covey, vice chairman of the Franklin Covey Co., whose client portfolio includes 82 of the Fortune 100 companies and more than two-thirds of the Fortune 500, said there's a difference between leadership and management. The seminar's workbook illustrated the difference this way:
"Leadership makes sure the ladders we are climbing are leaning against the right wall; management makes sure we are climbing the ladders in the most efficient ways possible."
Some of the consultant's followers have coined the word "Coveyism" as an umbrella term to describe his mantra. While many business gurus focus on corporate organizational structures, compensation schedules and employee-management models for improving a company's bottom line, Covey starts with individuals. He places a heavy emphasis on self-improvement by working on core attributes such as gaining trust and fostering an atmosphere on open communication.
"You never manage people, you only lead people," said Covey, who used interactive exercises, slides and short videos to drive home many of his points.
He also suggested that leadership has nothing to do with hierarchy.
"Leadership is a choice, not a position," said Covey.
Effective leaders do not neglect any of the four key elements of human nature: body, mind, heart and spirit. In other words, merely giving an employee a big raise might not make that worker happier or more productive if other problems are ignored.
With that, he laid the foundation for the topic of Tuesday's seminar which was titled "The Four Roles of a Leader: How to Make Every Team Player a Leader."
The first role focuses on principle-centered leadership and underscores the importance of exuding the kind of character that will breed trust and respect. Other roles of an effective leader include:
Pathfinding: tying together an entity's value system with needs of customers and other stakeholders through a strategic plan.
Aligning: ensuring that an organization's structure and systems contribute toward achieving a larger mission.
Empowering: "Igniting a fire" within people that unleashes their latent talent and creativity.
For those who might reject Covey's concepts as being too fuzzy to have a direct impact on a company's bottom line, participants were given the results of a survey. About 3,500 business managers were asked to identify the major obstacles that hold back quality. Lack of trust in senior management was the most commonly cited roadblock, while poor communication was not far behind.
Participants paid between $349 and $389 to attend the forum co-sponsored by WYNCOM Inc. and the University at Buffalo School of Management. Dave MacDonald, a materials manager at American Axle & Manufacturing, said he thinks Covey's principles will have an impact on the way he approaches his tasks in the East Delavan Avenue plant.
"Some of his concepts are self-apparent, but he puts a new twist on things," said MacDonald. "He really makes you think."
In fact, Covey challenged participants to do more than just reflect on the "Lessons in Leadership" forum. Claiming that teaching others is the single most effective way to retain what we learn, he urged attendees to ask their bosses to let them expose fellow workers to the leadership paradigms.
Gary Witter, American Axle's area production manager, said he likes Covey's approach.
"He's basically holding us accountable for what we've learned," said Witter. "And he's reinforcing that in order to be a good leader, you also have to be a good teacher."