No guru's lessons are more popular among company builders than Stephen Covey's. What hunger does he feed? And what happens to companies whose leaders put Coveyism at the center of the workplace?

Stephen Covey is fit, drum-chested, 62 years old, and bald. He has fleshy lips, a strong nose, no eyebrows, very clean fingernails, and a powdery smoker's voice. Only he doesn't smoke or drink, not even coffee (he's a Mormon); he just talks for a living. His audience is vast, influential, and varied. It includes executives of big corporations (half the companies on the Fortune 500 have taught Covey's Seven Habits to their employees); successful entrepreneurs (last year's Inc. 500 CEOs chose Covey as their favorite business-book author); and President Clinton, who recommended Covey to every working person in America in a speech a couple of years ago and afterward invited him to a sleep-over at Camp David.

"I do not want to be a guru," Covey insists. Meanwhile, his most famous book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, has sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide and has been a fixture on best-seller lists since it appeared, in 1989. It's available in 27 languages, in 75 countries. ("The book is going gangbusters in Korea, India, Asia," Covey croons.) There are tapes, videos, a Seven Habits Organizer, frequent personal appearances (his fee is $45,000), and a full lineup of seminars, from one-day crash courses at a Marriott near you to weeklong retreats in the mountains outside Provo, Utah. Covey Leadership Center, the corporate underpinning of the Covey phenomenon, made the Inc. 500 list in 1994. Its sales last year topped $70 million, with net earnings approaching $7 million. ("No margin, no mission" is the Covey aphorism that applies.) This year sales are projected to hit $100 million, and next year a new book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, will probably push sales even higher.

Astounding numbers, but what's behind them? What's going on here? How does one account for Covey's sustained fame, his reach, his effectiveness?

One could start by asking the man himself. "It's not Stephen Covey," he insisted one day last spring during a break in an all-day appearance at Caesar's Palace, in Las Vegas, "at all. It's the principles." Well, sure, but Dale Carnegie, in How to Win Friends and Influence People, referred to principles, too, and for the same reason Covey does. A principle is genuine, true, forever; it's the opposite of a fad, which, if you're Covey or Carnegie -- or Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale, Ken Blanchard, Tony Robbins, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker, Peter Senge, or anyone else in the crowded business-self-help field -- is definitely not what you're about, you hope.

Is it the power of his prose? Hardly. While millions admire Covey, scarcely anyone enjoys reading his books. Some blame themselves ("I've had only a year of college"), but it's not their fault. The Seven Habits is a punishing read: the charts, the arrows, the mind-numbing calls to "Be Proactive!" "Think Win/Win!" and "Synergize!" It can't possibly be his personality. He's a celebrity now, which induces a glow (set off nicely by the excellent suits he wears). But really, Covey has as much native charisma as the proverbial dentist. Even one of his biggest fans, John McCormack, CEO of Visible Changes, a $30-million chain of hair salons based in Houston, concedes that Covey live can be "boring and bad."

Covey's influence might be easier to parse if there were anything like a recognizable Covey school of management, but there is not. Widely different organizations -- Shell Oil, Yarnell's Ice Cream, the United Auto Workers, the U.S. Postal Service, the entire city of Columbus, Ind. -- have embraced Covey for reasons as different as those organizations are to begin with; and after the embrace, they're still different. Covey is not the father -- in the way W. Edwards Deming is, for example -- of a management system. He is not a subject taught at Harvard Business School. Covey is more likely to show up on "Oprah" than in the Wall Street Journal. What happens between Covey and his readers, it seems, is personal and therefore subjective. "Covey's not a productivity tool so much as he's an awakening tool" is how McCormack describes his appeal.

A sympathetic reading of Covey suggests right away that the Seven Habits he preaches are much more than time-management tips; also that they're not bad habits. (Everyone should have such habits.) Covey confirms what people already know. He insists, comfortingly, that nobody has to choose between being happy at home and being successful at work, that effective people can be both. He inspires, asserting that you -- not your boss, your competitors, or the global economy -- control your destiny. Covey creates a vision of order in a period of economic chaos. He is therapist to the conscripts of the new economy. He is also a spiritualist on the eve of the millennium, carrying a New Age, profamily message that resonates with forty-somethings and strikes a chord in Gingrich's America.

But those aren't reasons for Covey's popularity; they're clues. They don't explain the spell Covey is casting over people in business any more than the GOP platform explained Ronald Reagan's hold on the American electorate. In both cases, understanding what's behind the phenomenon requires one to actually look behind it -- at the followers, not the leader.

What's fascinating about the Covey phenomenon isn't Covey; it's his audience. Not the dish but the appetite. What are company builders and business executives looking for when they turn to someone like Covey? What are they seeking when they enlist whole organizations in their quests? And why do their employees so willingly sign on? What, in other words, is the hunger Covey feeds?

* * *

Everybody at Searcy Industrial Laundry who isn't a salesperson wears a uniform. That includes the owner, Joe Giezeman, who sports one of the company's popular executive sets: navy blue slacks and a sky blue short-sleeved shirt, with "Searcy Industrial Laundry" on one breast and "Joe" on the other. Giezeman likes being in uniform because it's easy and neat and helps drive home the point that at his company, the owner and the employees are a team.

Giezeman was born and raised in the Netherlands. (His odd accent is part Dutch, part Dixie.) He landed at the University of Georgia in 1978 on a foreign-study program, stayed to get his M.B.A., and afterward joined Rental Uniform Service -- one of the 10 largest companies in the $3-billion uniform-rental industry. In 1985, with $15,000 of his own savings, a bank loan, and help from relatives in the Netherlands (who became silent partners), Giezeman acquired Searcy Industrial Laundry from its owner, who was ready to retire. It was exactly what Giezeman was after: a tired little company in the business he knew best, just begging for his undivided attention. The fact that it was located in charmless, out-of-the-way Searcy, Ark. -- with its fast-food strip, its dusty denominational college (Harding University), and its 24-hour Wal-Mart -- was irrelevant. Giezeman was looking to make a life, not settle into one.

Under Giezeman and his wife, Kathy, a business-school classmate, Searcy Industrial Laundry has prospered. Annual sales have risen sevenfold, to more than $5 million, with pretax profits approaching 10%. The silent partners were bought out years ago. Today the company is the largest independent industrial laundry in Arkansas. But that doesn't mean Giezeman's been able to relax. All along, he's been watching with a growing sense of dread as other independent operators fall (sometimes willingly) before a powerful wave of consolidation. That's not the future Giezeman wants for his company or for himself. He comes from a line of launderers five generations long; if he were to sell his company now, he wouldn't know what else to do. But his determination doesn't stem entirely from his need to uphold the Giezeman family legacy. It's also fueled by his need to break that legacy -- at the point where, traditionally, the founder has hit the wall.

Like his father, Giezeman went into business for himself when he was in his twenties and pushed hard and ran fast all the way through his thirties; he stands now, on the brink of 40, at a crossroads. As he sees it, either he succeeds in creating a lasting enterprise, a company with a future beyond the fast-growth years, or he fails and ultimately has to sell out. Giezeman's father sold out, reluctantly, when he was in his mid-forties. He "couldn't manage the jump from hands-on owner-operator to professional manager," Giezeman says. That example, Giezeman observes, has made him "very sensitive to making that transition."

Giezeman is a builder, not a speculator. He wants to be able to keep on building. But he's finding that it gets harder as he goes along. The fear that visits him from time to time is "Man, I just cannot sustain this." One way he fights the fear is by never relenting, with himself or others. ("He doesn't let grass grow under your feet" is how Max Elliott, Searcy Industrial Laundry's production manager, describes his boss.) Another way is by reading all the business books he can.

Giezeman came upon a copy of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People two years ago in an airport bookstore. "I immediately sensed that this was it," he says. He also knew enough about himself not to trust his first impression. A self-described "sucker for the latest thing," Giezeman had been rummaging through business books for years, searching for the silver bullet, invariably ending up disappointed. The search had led him years earlier to implement a total quality management initiative at Searcy Industrial Laundry. In the end, however, the results fell short of his expectations.

"We never could quite achieve the level that we were capable of," says Giezeman. "When we monitored the plan and put all our attention on it, it did OK. But it never took off on its own, never really changed the culture. I think it was because people in the company didn't trust us enough. That's why I was so intrigued by The Seven Habits and Covey. I began to see how small things you do that are inconsistent with being trustworthy have really large implications. If they can be eliminated, then the trust goes up."

Back home, Giezeman shared The Seven Habits with Kathy; she liked it, too. In October 1994 Giezeman paid $1,500 to take a three-day Seven Habits course in Little Rock. He came back energized but still cautious. "Let's live it and not say anything to anybody and see how we think about it in six months," he suggested to Kathy. Meanwhile, he got busy, drafting a "personal mission statement" (Habit Two: Begin with the end in mind); waking up at 5 every morning to read business books and exercise (Habit Seven: Sharpen the saw); and making play dates with his young children (Habit Three: Put first things first). At the end of the testing period, he says, "I felt even stronger about it." That's when he decided, "Let's really do this thing."

* * *

Already, Giezeman's employees had begun noticing small changes in his behavior. He seemed to listen better (Habit Five: Seek first to understand, then to be understood) and was less dictatorial (Habit Six: Synergize). Looking back, Annette Bowman is convinced she was "a guinea pig" for Giezeman while he was considering whether to involve the rest of the company in Covey's teachings. Giezeman visited Bowman often at her station on the line, engaging her in conversation, prodding her, supplying her with fresh challenges. Hired as a seam ripper, she had been quickly promoted to the position of floater in the order department, handling whatever tasks needed doing and training others. Three years after coming to work at Searcy Industrial Laundry, she moved up to production supervisor; and this past summer Giezeman named her operations manager of Searcy's mat plant in Cabot, Ark., at three times her original salary. Bowman is thrilled with her progress at the company, of course, but then so is Giezeman (Habit Four: Think win/win).

Bowman was one of 20 employees at Searcy Industrial Laundry who got copies of The Seven Habits from Giezeman in the summer of 1995. By then the CEO had taken a second-level course in Dallas and paid nearly $10,000 for a site license and teaching materials, qualifying him as a Seven Habits instructor. In the fall he began offering the Seven Habits course to his employees. Since then, two study groups have formed at the company -- one for the members of its internal board, another for the rest of the management team and some other employees.

The latter group meets Friday mornings at 9:30 in the conference room, adjacent to the plant floor. Outside, where it's noisy, the line keeps moving, tended by the company's 60-odd production workers, most of whom haven't yet had their Covey training. Inside, where it's quiet, a dozen managers, supervisors, salespeople, and office assistants sit around a large table. All eyes are on Thomas Hodges, who is in charge of maintenance and quality control at Searcy Industrial Laundry. He places a 30-minute hourglass on the conference table, turns it over, and picks up a pair of dice. The assignment for this week's meeting was to read pages 162 through 170 in The Seven Habits and come to the meeting prepared to lead the discussion. Hodges rolls the dice to determine which of the people around the table will actually lead: five. Bowman, in the fifth chair to Hodges's left, beams. "If I talk too fast, y'all slow me down!"

It has been less than a year since Bowman was first exposed to Covey, and less than six months since she completed the course. In that time she has embarked on a far-reaching personal makeover, with astonishing results. The promotions aren't even the half of it. Because of Covey, Bowman has said, she got back together with her estranged husband, bought a house, began planning a family, quit smoking, enrolled in night school (she got an A in her first class), and committed herself to losing one pound a week.

Bowman kicks off the discussion by asking everyone in the group to name an important role in his or her life and choose a goal to meet within that role -- something that can be accomplished in the next seven days. Donna Reynolds, in her role as a mother, says she'll try to scale back her teenager's phone time. Dean McGlothin, as a father, wants to help his daughter get organized before she enlists in the navy next week. Ron Bubb hopes to finalize plans for a vacation with his wife. Bowman wants to shed another pound.

The more they talk, the stranger (and more personal) it gets. They're all wearing their company uniforms, sitting in company chairs, meeting on company time, and yet the last thing on anybody's mind, apparently, is his or her role as an employee of Searcy Industrial Laundry. That kind of response to Covey is neither atypical nor unintended. The man himself says he uses "about one-third family illustrations, two-thirds organizational/business" ones in his books and speeches because the family stuff gets "to their deepest part, where they're hurting the most." ("Go where the pain is," he says.) The chapter in The Seven Habits on mission statements begins with an unoriginal but affecting exercise in which the reader is asked to imagine being at a funeral, approaching the casket, peering inside, and coming "face-to-face with yourself." "Look carefully at the people around you," Covey writes. "What difference would you like to have made in their lives?"

The leap of faith, from management's point of view, is that all that soul-searching eventually makes employees more productive. Maybe it does. Gail Joye, senior vice-president at Community Group, a bank-holding company in Chattanooga , knows that Covey seminars can resemble therapy sessions, and that's OK. "It helps people in their personal lives, which makes them happier, better employees," she says. Doug Sanders, senior vice-president for sales and marketing at Yarnell's Ice Cream, up the street from Searcy Industrial Laundry, goes further. It gives them "more kinship with each other and more understanding," he says. "It encourages them not to be as judgmental, not to jump to conclusions, not to assume everybody's out to get them. We feel it gives us a competitive advantage in communication."

* * *

Shoshana Zuboff, a professor at Harvard Business School who is writing a book about the nature of work in the 21st century, dismisses Covey's Seven Habits as "homiletic" and "the level of depth of the samplers that my grandma would knit." At the same time, Zuboff wishes to "honor the real need in people" that draws them to Covey. "I think people sense the future will be different from the past in unpredictable ways," she says. "They sense that the things they have relied upon -- the anchors, the benchmarks, the external goals, the institutional structures -- are not reliable in ways they once believed they were." No wonder, then, that they should be "looking for someone who can help them feel stronger, more courageous in the face of things, and have some internal markers that are more enduring."

Zuboff is among those who have noted how Covey appeals to, among others, the pool of disaffected workers Patrick Buchanan tried to reach during his presidential campaign, but in a different way. Whereas Buchanan said, "I can forestall all this change, I can make it go away," Covey groups corporate downsizing, declining wages, and America's fading primacy in the global economy within most people's "circle of concern" -- things they can worry about but can't change. He would counsel workers to focus instead (Habit One: Be proactive) on their "circle of influence," things over which they have some control. If Covey's teaching "doesn't make the change go away," says Zuboff, "at least it can make your own fear and sense of vulnerability go away."

Or that's the promise, anyway. What if it's just a tease? "In times of social change, you see medicine men proliferate," says Zuboff. "My biggest hope is that Covey doesn't do people any harm by creating expectations that can't be met." Actually, "medicine man" is among the kinder labels pinned on Covey, particularly by members of the academic community. He's been called a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman, a charismatic demigod, a megalomaniac, a false messiah, even, almost, a Nazi, as in, "Absolutely do not quote me as saying he's a Nazi, but . . . " Many have noted the overlap between companies that aggressively promote Covey and companies that are aggressively downsizing. (Imagine getting a pink slip from AT&T clipped to this message from Covey: "Anytime we think the problem is 'out there,' that thought is the problem.")

The Covey phenomenon can offend. Covey converts, for instance, can be insufferable. ("You'd like people to jump on the bandwagon and be a zealot like you," admits Sanders of Yarnell's; he has to remind himself to go easy on his wife, whose own devotion is lukewarm.) A vein of rigid, almost puritanical thinking runs through the master's worldview. ("Too many vacations that last too long, too many movies, too much TV, too much video game playing . . . gradually wastes a life," Covey writes in The Seven Habits.) In person Covey projects smugness; and despite his denials, his writing conveys the sense that he really does believe he has a lock on the truth -- as in this selection from The Seven Habits: "We must be certain that we do not submit ourselves to any programming that is not in harmony with . . . anything other than correct principles."

"It's the use of that word correct that really pisses me off," says Ron Heifetz, director of the Leadership Education Project at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "Who does he think he is? There is no respect for diversity of perspectives with the use of that kind of language."

Whenever Covey hears criticism like that (and he hears it all the time), he just smiles, shrugs, and says, "Don't get hung up on my language." But language matters, and Covey's can be scary. In Las Vegas, talking about what happens when a company commits to Covey training, he warned that some people -- he calls them "flakes" -- always resist. Managers needn't worry, though. "Those people would gradually leave the company," Covey said, "because they'd be purified out."

* * *

Which makes Covey . . . what? a fraud? a hypocrite? A devil in a blue suit? All of the above? None? Does it matter? What clearly matters is the effect Covey has on the people and organizations that read his books. That effect, more often than not, is positive, even inspiring.

Look, for example, at Vicki Gullion. She got her Covey training at Shell Oil, where she worked for 20 years. Shell is one of those companies that may be guilty of stroking their employees with one hand (at least 25% have taken the Seven Habits course) while showing them the door with the other (total employment is down by more than 30% since 1990). But that's not really an issue for Gullion. Because of Covey, she made this promise to herself: "I'm going to enjoy the rest of my life and be happy, and if I'm not, I will quit and do something else." Because of that promise, she quit her job at Shell, left her home in Denver City, Tex., moved to Dallas, got a job selling cars (something she'd always wanted to do) at an Acura dealership, and became top producer her first year on the lot. Today Gullion is a changed woman, charged up about her new life and career, and deeply thankful to Covey. "Suddenly, it dawned on me that I had a choice," she says.

Look at Northstar Industries of Jonesboro, Ark., a $17-million metal fabricator. Before discovering Covey, says CEO Jim Markley, "we were involved in four different markets, and we were bad at all four." Northstar was formed in 1986 by the merger of two companies, one a manufacturer, the other a marketer and distributor. The management was searching for common ground. "We had all come from backgrounds where there were unwritten agendas," says Markley. "I always found out the hard way that I wasn't living up to someone's expectations." Covey helped get everybody at Northstar on the same page and helped the employees define a clear mission for the company. Today Markley identifies Covey as a "significant factor" in helping Northstar focus on one market (expandable conveyors for loading and unloading trucks); blow away its rivals ("Five years ago we had three competitors and 0% of the market. Now two have disappeared, one is struggling, and we have 80% of the market."); and triple its sales.

And look at Searcy Industrial Laundry. Covey's influence is everywhere: in the dog-eared paperback copies of The Seven Habits everyone keeps close by; in the "personal mission statements" people tape above their desks; in the Covey phrases ("emotional bank account," "abundance mentality," "private victory," and so forth) on everybody's lips; and most of all in the spirit of earnest self-improvement that seems to have settled over the plant like a rose-colored cloud. Richard Stocks, the company's self-taught computer expert, says, "Anytime you can take in knowledge and become aware of your weakness, you're always going to be a better individual, whether it's for the company or the family. Criticism used to bother me a lot. Now I find myself asking, 'Is there anything I can improve on?"

Everything Giezeman has done to make Searcy Industrial Laundry stronger in the past two years he talks about in a Covey context. For example, Covey posits an ideal he calls a "Quadrant II manager" -- someone who makes time for tasks that are important but not urgent. Seeing the wisdom in that ideal gave Giezeman the courage, after years of living exclusively in Quadrant I (in which everything is deemed important and urgent), to reassign two members of his management team to long-term projects. One went to work on a thorough analysis of garment costs, which took 18 months but led to a 50% reduction in the company's second-largest expense category. The other devised a system for determining profitability by account, the Holy Grail of the uniform-rental industry. "The payoffs have been incredibly high," says Giezeman. "I think our ability to compete right now as well as in the future is much higher because of it."

In his continuing search for help, Giezeman in 1985 had assembled a board of directors with full corporate power. He got rid of it in 1991, though, because "they were so much in awe of our success that they always rubber-stamped what we did." After reading Covey, Giezeman decided to appoint five top-level managers to an internal board. Together with the Giezemans the board rewrote the company mission statement, replacing a document Giezeman had drawn up by himself years before. As Covey's influence spread throughout the company the board matured, gradually exercising more power and initiative. Then one day last fall, at an off-site board meeting, the members welcomed Giezeman back from a break with this blunt message, delivered by Lester Allen: "We've decided to fire you, Joe."

The board wasn't actually firing Giezeman, of course, but despite the nervous laughter in the room that day, this was no joke: Giezeman would have to change. The board was telling him it was time for him to stop trying to do it all; time to hire a general manager to run the plant; time to turn his attention to the big picture (strategic planning, expansion, acquisitions -- initiatives vital to Searcy Industrial Laundry's survival); time, in other words, for Giezeman to make the jump his father never made, the transition he was afraid would defeat him, giving up his traditional role as owner-operator and becoming, at last, a professional manager.

"I always knew what I wanted," Giezeman says of his new role. "But as you get ready to let go, you need a vision." Covey supplied that vision, or more accurately, Covey helped Giezeman define, and then realize, his own vision.

* * *

The most powerful message Giezeman took away from Covey is also, as it happens, a simple one: You can do it. So simple, perhaps, that it's meaningless -- until you compare it with the frightening message at the heart of so many other business books: Change or die. Before he found Covey, Giezeman had heard the latter message so often that he was beginning to lose hope. The more changes he tried on for size at his company, the more of them failed, and the more the company remained the same. He was coming to a conviction, which was "I'm in deep shit; or if I'm not now, then I'm gonna be. The natural forces are against me." But Covey convinced Giezeman that he could make it, and beyond that, that the power to succeed was already his, a matter of developing himself, not lining up with yet another new program. The upshot is that Giezeman doesn't worry as much as he used to. "Just let them be who they are," he says now of his competitors. "We'll do our own thing." Developing confidence in himself has helped Giezeman find the motivation to "eliminate our own hurdles and our own stupid mistakes," to "take care of our customers," to "do all the things right we can control." And that, he says, has "brought an amount of peace to me."

If the owner hungers for it, you can bet his employees do, too. It's on them that the waves have been crashing, one after another after another. Max Elliott, before he became Searcy Industrial Laundry's production manager, endured years of cascading management initiatives in the air force -- efficiency experts, quality mavens, learning coaches, creativity gurus, systems reorganizers. "I have this long list of buzzwords," he says wearily. "The buzzwords come and go. You look back on them and they all seem to be the same thing, just repackaged." So many books, tapes, videos, seminars, initiatives, and schemes, all of them designed to increase profits, improve productivity, and make American business more competitive in the global economy. "You spend three hours in a lecture," says Searcy Industrial Laundry's route supervisor, Kevin Money, describing his typical experience, "and your head is spinning and you're tired and you're hungry and your butt hurts and you just want to get outside."

Not long ago Money spent three eye-opening days in a Seven Habits seminar, taking to it, he says, "like a bird dog to birds." If he was fidgeting, it was because he couldn't wait to get home and tell his wife all about it. Afterward, they sat down together and wrote a family mission statement, which led Money to conclude he was spending too much time shooting birds and not enough time with his family. "I understood through this that I need to listen more, that I need to understand what they're saying," he says. "Do I really care about what they're saying? Do I let them know that I care about what they're saying?" Covey has made him more aware, Money says, in a way that "just sort of blows me away."

It's not hard to see what's happening here. When the Searcy Industrial Laundry study group meets at work to talk about personal goals; when Max Elliott says, "Covey's method of approaching the spiritual side really brought the balance that the others did not have"; when Thomas Hodges says, "This book touched a lot on how to handle family situations"; when Richard Stocks says, "It's not totally management, it's more than that"; all of them are saying much the same thing -- that Covey reaches them as people first and as employees second.

So naturally, Joe Giezeman would respond to Covey as Annette Bowman did -- by first going to work on himself and trusting the rest to follow. Traditionally, the bargain has been proposed in reverse: Work harder, sacrifice, be more efficient, become more productive, get with the program -- whatever it is -- and once we get this company turned around, you'll be better off, more secure, happier too. Trust us. Talk about creating false expectations!

Covey turns the bargain on its head. Ultimately, his impact on American business may be sustained no longer than that of the legions of self-helpsters who preceded him or those who inevitably will follow. Still, his current popularity tells us something: about a collective fatigue born of promises unkept and a collective hunger for sweet solace.

"I come in thinking, 'If I do these things, I'll be a better person," says Lester Allen. That's both the way he approaches Covey's Seven Habits and the reason he's so excited about them. "My wife will like me more, my children will be happier with me, and I'll be able to do important things in the community -- as well as produce more for the company," he says.

Trust him. He trusts himself.