Saturday, September 17, 2011

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - A Summary Stephen R. Covey

Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a well know leadership book, that unpacks the theory behind personal leadership development. This will be a brief overview of the 1989 classic.

Habit 1 - Be proactive - Henry David Thoreau says, 'I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor'. While the quote is on the verge of putting self-improvement on too high a pedestal, the idea is grounded. If someone has had a traumatic life like the story of Victor Frankl, who was forced into the Nazi Germany death camps, they still can be proactive in choosing their response to the situation. This is what makes Victor Frankl so well known, because he understood the only thing he had control over in his life, was his mind, and so he chose how he would respond to the Nazis. 'He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him' (p. 69). Being proactive or what has been labelled 'proactivity' is about understanding that we have the freedom to choose to have self-awareness, imagination, a conscience and an independent will. Our behavior becomes a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We learn that to be highly effective people, we need to be proactive about our mental, emotional and moral lives.
Eleanor Roosevelt (p. 72) said, 'No one can hurt you without your consent'. Tough quote for those who have lived through years of abuse and pain, but the essence of being proactive, and being the controller of your repsonses is admirable, and a challenge for each of us (like when someone cuts you off while driving!).
Lastly, in relation to Habit 1, 'Be Proactive', we can choose whether we become acted upon, or whether we are the ones who act. You witness this within a company that is struggling with the current financial market. They either wait to be acted upon by the financial situation, or they choose to be proactive and act.

Habit 2 - Begin with the end in mind - Covey encourages people to think about the sacred moment of their funeral. What would people say in the eulogy? What would be the legacy that you would have left? Would people be saying the things that you hoped they would? When we float through life with no end in mind, we may find ourselves 10 years from now contemplating whether we have done all that we could have. By beginning with the end in mind, we may end up changing our decisions/priorities for today and we might run a different course tomorrow. In fact, next month, we might schedule that all important meeting we have been putting off, so that we can reach the end we have in mind. To quote Covey in the 7 Habits, 'By keeping that end clearly in mind, you can make certain that whatever you do on any particular day does not violate the criteria you have defined as supremely important, and that each day of your life contributes in a meaningful way to the vision you have of your life as a whole' (p. 98).

The way Stephen Covey believes you can bring greater purpose and direction in life is to write a personal mission statement. When writing this you may consider your impact upon family, friends, work, church, etc.
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Habit 3 - Put First Things First - So Habit 1 is about your ability to develop imagination, conscience, independent will and self-awareness. Habit 2 is about envisioning the potential we have, and considering what impact we want to have in life. Habit 3, is really the outworking of Habits 1 and 2. It is about putting into tangible existence our desires, and our personal mission. When we fully embrace being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, and then putting first things first, we begin to make adjustments to our daily schedule.

While administration may be important, for example, in your organisation, it is most likely a means to an end, and there is probably a greater cause you wish to fight for. Put first things first, and delegate or minimise your time in administration and do what brings a greater return and a greater personal fulfilment. Stephen Covey highlights the four quadrants of time management, which allow us to put what is most important and most urgent at the forefront. This is quadrant one. Lets have a brief look at the four quadrants of time management by Stephen Covey:
  •    Quadrant I: The Urgent and the Important Tasks.
  •    Quadrant II: The Not Urgent but Important Tasks.
  •    Quadrant III: The Urgent Tasks but Not Important Tasks.
  •    Quadrant IV: The Not Urgent and Not Important Tasks.
Interestingly, quite often we get bogged down in the urgent and important tasks, even if they are not life-changing tasks, and the challenge is the Quadrant II activities. The important tasks, e.g. the architecture of a new building, are tasks that are not urgent and thus they somehow find themselves on the bottom of the to-do list. It's the tyranny of the urgent. You must purposefully put time aside time for the Quadrant II activities, highlighter in this Time Management Matrix from Covey. Put aside an hour a day, and tackle some important tasks, that are not urgent, but are future oriented, that will make a great difference when completed in the future. As Habit 3 says, 'Put First things First.'

Habit 4 - Think Win/Win - This is the not the advice I received in my University class on business negotiation. A win-win situation was merely an option among the other options of win-lose, lose-lose and lose-win. Covey really drives this point home, that we can work hard in our public work to discover win-win situations. It takes time, and collaboration and lots of communication. Covey unpacks this more in The 8th Habit. He says the old paradigm is the win-lose scenario. But if organisations, families, churches, etc, can find a deeper level of communication and understanding of the other side's perspective, they can solve interpersonal conflict and negotiation with a win-win. Covey goes on to say, that a higher level of the win-win scenario is either Win/Win or No Deal. Covey writes, 'No Deal basically means that if we can't find a solution that would benefit us both, we agree to disagree agreeably - No Deal' (p. 213).

Habit 5 - Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood - It's a powerful concept. Reading Covey's story on page 30 brought this concept home for me. The story was about when Covey boarded a subway train in New York one Sunday morning. Initially he was sitting there peacefully until suddenly a father with his children entered the carriage. The children were very ratty and mischevious, and you could imagine the frustration of being interupted for a nice peaceful Sunday morning trip. I bet he couldn't help but think, 'Why is this Dad not looking after his kids?! My goodness, I could do a better job than that!' Finally Covey had had enough of the noisy, rowdy, disobedient children, and he said to the father, 'Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn't control them a little more?' What came next was a shock. The Dad began telling Covey that his wife had just died very recently in hospital, and that they were just trying to deal with their sudden loss. What a reality check for Covey! (p. 30-31). Quick to make a judgment call, and quick to voice out the problem; clearly without first seeking to understand what was happening. The assumptions we make in situations is rife, and we need to seek first to understand.

What a dynamic, challenging personal quest, to seek first to understand, then to be understood. You know the challenge, to stop and listen. I am challenged personally of the amount of times I am listening to someone, then I begin forming my reply sentences in my mind, while the other person is still talking, and I find myself tuning out to what the person is 'really' saying, and being far too quick to offer the remedy and the solution! Active listening is the communication tool that comes to mind. Not just, kind of listening, or half listening, but active listening. Active listening is attentive and focused and seeks to deeply understand the other person first. Covey highlights this as empathic listening.
More on Stephen Covey. A review of the 8th Habit. Click here.
Habit 6 - Synergize - In our fast-paced do it yourself kind of western world, the synergy idea is sometimes thrown out the window. 'I mean, I can do it better myself!' Synergy is powerful though, because it is really that the 'whole is greater than the sum of its parts' (p. 263). If 10 people are putting together websites to voice their opinions on the entertainment industry, for instance, they might achieve say a readership of 10,000 people each. Great. Each is happy with that. Imagine the 10 entertainment commentators got together and created a new brand and commentry site, that created synergy. Synergy would mean they would end up with far more than 100,000 total readers, but say 200,000.

Synergy is needed in organisations like churches for instance, so that resources are shared, finances are not unnecessarily wasted, etc. Organisations need synergy, so that departments aren't doubling up, with say, two payrolls systems, and each department enjoying their own IT section; instead they should be streamlining their processes and creating synergy. Synergy would happen in the Universities, for example, as professors and doctors share their intellect, and work together to create better course notes, and better faculties and ultimately better Universities. Synergy is about working together to achieve more as a whole than the sum of all the parts.

Habit 7 - Sharpen the Saw - Sharpening the saw is really all about what Stephen Covey's 8th Habit covers. We have four dimensions in life, our physical nature, our social/emotional nature, our mental nature and our spiritual nature. We are challenged to sharpen these four aspects of our lives. In the physical realm, we may sharpen this by having a daily walk or watching what we eat. We all know, that if we don't watch the physical side of our life, we will be unable to make any difference elsewhere. Socially/emotionally we may endeveour to lift our emotional intelligence (hat tip Daniel Goleman), that is, our ability to interact well with others, to work through conflict, etc. Thirdly, our mental nature might be enhanced by reading leadership literature or books in general, or by visualizing, thinking, planning, writing, etc. Lastly, our spiritual nature might be developed through an engagement in prayer and asking God to clarify our greater purpose in life. We sharpen the saw, so that we can be highly effective people. We sharpen the saw, so that we grow in life, and reach our full potential.

I hope you have enjoyed this summary of what is a great book - Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989).

The next article is Stephen Covey's 4 Human Intelligences, found in his book The 8th Habit. Click here.


  1. Nice principles..But covey makes simple stuff sound so complicated..

    This is a really good self help book...I heard about this book from my bodybuilding youtube guru(scooby) and warren buffet also speaks about this book..So heck i thought i would give it a read...

    Covey's 7 principles could be stated in less than 7 pages. But these principles are great and really does enrich your life experience, especially if you are an average person like me.
    But the content should have been no more than 20 pages maximum.

    My advise is go to wikipedia and do a search for this book..Or get a summary from the internet..Will be worth saving time and money and you can even learn about the habits for free without having to listen to covey's talks about god and service!!!

  2. I think it's a great read and book! Some people need/appreciate the details put into this project/work. While it could have been shorter for some, there are still many nuggets in the details...And as for God and service, don't knock it until you've REALLY tried it. For God and service is not about the server, but the served....Thank you JESUS!


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