Reading Room

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey

“The Character Ethic is based on the fundamental idea that there are principles that govern human effectiveness-natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unareadinRoom - SevenHabitsrguably ‘there’ as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension.”

“People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them. The key to the ability to change is a changeless sense of who you are, what you are about and what you value.”

“Most people tend to think in terms of dichotomies: strong or weak, hardball or softball, win or lose. But that kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed. It’s based on power and position rather than on principle. Win-win is based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody, that one person’s success is not achieved at the expense of exclusion of the success of others.”

In a nutshell

Real effectiveness comes from clarity (about your principles, values, and vision). Change is only real if it has become habitual.

Stephen Covey’s book is one of the phenomena of modern personal development writing. It has sold a million copies a year since its release, has been translated into 32 languages, and forms the intellectual basis of a large corporation. It took Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People 60 years to have the same sort of impact.

What was it that lifted it above the mass of books claiming the secret to a better existence?

Inside-out success

First, it was timing. The 7 Habits came out just as we entered the 1990s. Suddenly, aspiring to be a “master of the universe” in a shoulder-padded world did not seem to satisfy, and people were ready for a different prescription for getting what they really wanted out of life. Covey’s message of “restoring the character ethic” was so old-fashioned that it seemed revolutionary.

Having studied the success literature of the last 200 years for a doctoral dissertation, Covey was able to draw a distinction between what he termed the “personality ethic”-the quick-fix solutions and human relations techniques that had pervaded much of the writing in the twentieth century-and the “character ethic”-which revolved around unchanging personal principles. Covey believed that outward success was not success at all if it was not the manifestation of inner mastery. Or, in his terminology, “private victory” must precede “public victory.”

A business plan for personal life

The second, more practical reason for the book’s success is that it is a compelling read, both as a self-help book and as a leadership/management manual. This crossover status effectively doubled its market. It also means that the reader interested only in personal development may not like the management terms, diagrams, and business anecdotes that fill it. For a book that is so much about changing paradigms, it is remarkably representative of the paradigm of business thinking.

But this should be a small price to pay for what is a brilliant guide to reengineering your life, enlivened by Covey’s personal and family experiences. Covey may be Dale Carnegie’s heir in many ways, but his classic is more systematic, comprehensive, and life-expanding than any of the modern self-help titles that came before it.

Habits: The building blocks of change

The emphasis on habits as the basic units of change has also been important in the book’s success. Covey saw that real greatness was the result of the slow development of character over time; it is our daily habits of thinking and acting that are the ground on which that greatness is built. The 7 Habits promises a life revolution, not as a big bang, but as the cumulative result of thousands of small, evolutionary changes. The English novelist Charles Reade summarized what Covey is referring to: “Sow a thought, and you reap an action; sow an action, and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny.‘

Effective vs. efficient

Finally, the success of the book owes much to the use of “effective” in the title. By the late 1980s, western culture had had decades of management theory about efficiency. The concept of time management, a product of a machine-obsessed culture, had spilled over into the personal domain, and we could have been forgiven for thinking that any problems in our lives were the result of “inefficient allocation of resources.” However, Covey took a different perspective, and he had this message: Think about what is most important to you and see if it is the centre around which your life revolves. Don’t worry about efficiency. There is no use being “efficient” if what you are doing lacks meaning or an essential good.

The Seven Habits puts effectiveness at a higher level than achievement. Achievement is hollow unless what you achieve is actually worthwhile, both in terms of your highest aims and service to others. Covey’s view is that the personality ethic of twentieth-century self-help had helped to create a high-achieving society that also did not happen to know where it was going.

The habit of responsibility

The seven habits are predicated on a willingness to see the world anew, to have the courage to take life seriously. The book struck a nerve because it showed many of us, perhaps for the first time, what genuine responsibility was about. To blame “the economy” or “my terrible employer” or “my family” for our troubles was useless. To have fulfilment and personal power, we had to decide what we would take responsibility for, what was in our “circle of concern.” Only by working on ourselves could we hope to expand our “circle of influence.”

To review the seven habits briefly:

1 Be proactive. We always have the freedom to choose our reactions to stimuli, even if everything else is taken away. With that ability also comes the knowledge that we do not have to live by the scripts that family or society has given us. Instead of “being lived,” we accept full responsibility for our life the way conscience tells us that it was meant to be lived. We are no longer a reactive machine but a proactive person.

2 Begin with the end in mind. What do I want people to say about me at my funeral? By writing our own eulogy or creating a personal mission statement, we create the ultimate objective or person first, and work backward from there. We have a self-guidance system that gives us the wisdom to make the right choice, so that whatever we do today is in line with the image created of ourselves at the end.

3 Put first things first. Habit 3 puts into daily action the farsightedness of habit 2. Having that ultimate picture in our mind, we can plan our days for maximum effectiveness and enjoyment. Our time is spent with the people and the things that really matter.

4 Think Win/Win. One person’s success doesn’t need to be achieved at the expense of the success of others. In seeking Win – Win, we never endanger our own principles. The result is a better relationship “not your way or my way, a better way” – created by truly seeing from the other person’s perspective.

5 Seek to understand, then to be understood. Without empathy, there is no influence. Without deposits in the emotional bank account of relationships, there is no trust. Genuine listening gives precious psychological air to the other person, and opens a window on to their soul.

6 Synergize. Synergy results from the exercise of all the other habits. It brings forth “third alternatives” or perfect outcomes that cannot be predicted from adding up the sum of the parts.

7 Sharpen the saw. We need to balance the physical, spiritual, mental, and social dimensions of life. “Sharpening the saw” to increase productivity involves taking the time to regularly renew ourselves in these areas.

Final comments

The author’s heroes are a guide to his philosophy. Benjamin Franklin is put forward as a perfect example of the character ethic in action, “the story of one man’s effort to integrate certain principles and habits deep within his nature.” Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian leader who originated the Middle East peace accords, also ranks highly in Covey’s mind as a person who successfully “rescripted” himself. Covey uses the story of concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search For Meaning – to support his personal responsibility ethic, and Henry David Thoreau – Walden – to illustrate the independent mind.

It has been said that Covey’s seven habits are merely common sense. On their own they may be, but put together in the one package, in that sequence, and with the philosophy of principle-centeredness to support them, they can produce the synergy that Covey celebrates.

A common criticism of self-help is that a seminar or a book can inspire us enormously, then we forget about it. Through its use of habits as the units of action and change, The 7 Habits gives readers the momentum to incorporate its teachings into daily life. We are given the means for changing the little, in order to transform the big.

This copy was taken from 50 Self-help Classics, written and compiled by Tom Butler-Bowdon.

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About Tom Cottrell

Tom is a struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.
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One Response to Reading Room

  1. Pingback: Developing the mind – a start | A short stroll to the horizon

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