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Summary of Stephen R. Covey's

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

In his #1 bestseller, Stephen R. Covey presented a framework for personal effectiveness. The following is a summary of the first part of his book, concluding with a list of the seven habits.

Inside-Out:  The Change Starts from Within

While working on his doctorate in the 1970's, Stephen R. Covey reviewed 200 years of literature on success. He noticed that since the 1920's, success writings have focused on solutions to specific problems. In some cases such tactical advice may have been effective, but only for immediate issues and not for the long-term, underlying ones. The success literature of the last half of the 20th century largely attributed success to personality traits, skills, techniques, maintaining a positive attitude, etc. This philosophy can be referred to as the Personality Ethic.

However, during the 150 years or so that preceded that period, the literature on success was more character oriented. It emphasized the deeper principles and foundations of success. This philosophy is known as the Character Ethic, under which success is attributed more to underlying characteristics such as integrity, courage, justice, patience, etc.

The elements of the Character Ethic are primary traits while those of the Personality Ethic are secondary. While secondary traits may help one to play the game to succeed in some specific circumstances, for long-term success both are necessary. One's character is what is most visible in long-term relationships. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say."

To illustrate the difference between primary and secondary traits, Covey offers the following example. Suppose you are in Chicago and are using a map to find a particular destination in the city. You may have excellent secondary skills in map reading and navigation, but will never find your destination if you are using a map of Detroit. In this example, getting the right map is a necessary primary element before your secondary skills can be used effectively.

The problem with relying on the Personality Ethic is that unless the basic underlying paradigms are right, simply changing outward behavior is not effective. We see the world based on our perspective, which can have a dramatic impact on the way we perceive things. For example, many experiments have been conducted in which two groups of people are shown two different drawings. One group is shown, for instance, a drawing of a young, beautiful woman and the other group is shown a drawing of an old, frail woman. After the initial exposure to the pictures, both groups are shown one picture of a more abstract drawing. This drawing actually contains the elements of both the young and the old woman. Almost invariably, everybody in the group that was first shown the young woman sees a young woman in the abstract drawing, and those who were shown the old woman see an old woman. Each group was convinced that it had objectively evaluated the drawing. The point is that we see things not as they are, but as we are conditioned to see them. Once we understand the importance of our past conditioning, we can experience a paradigm shift in the way we see things. To make large changes in our lives, we must work on the basic paradigms through which we see the world.

The Character Ethic assumes that there are some absolute principles that exist in all human beings. Some examples of such principles are fairness, honesty, integrity, human dignity, quality, potential, and growth. Principles contrast with practices in that practices are for specific situations whereas principles have universal application.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People presents an "inside-out" approach to effectiveness that is centered on principles and character. Inside-out means that the change starts within oneself. For many people, this approach represents a paradigm shift away from the Personality Ethic and toward the Character Ethic.

The Seven Habits - An Overview

Our character is a collection of our habits, and habits have a powerful role in our lives. Habits consist of knowledge, skill, and desire. Knowledge allows us to know what to do, skill gives us the ability to know how to do it, and desire is the motivation to do it.

The Seven Habits move us through the following stages:

  1. Dependence: the paradigm under which we are born, relying upon others to take care of us.

  2. Independence: the paradigm under which we can make our own decisions and take care of ourselves.

  3. Interdependence: the paradigm under which we cooperate to achieve something that cannot be achieved independently.

Much of the success literature today tends to value independence, encouraging people to become liberated and do their own thing. The reality is that we are interdependent, and the independent model is not optimal for use in an interdependent environment that requires leaders and team players.

To make the choice to become interdependent, one first must be independent, since dependent people have not yet developed the character for interdependence. Therefore, the first three habits focus on self-mastery, that is, achieving the private victories required to move from dependence to independence. The first three habits are:

  • Habit 1: Be Proactive
  • Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
  • Habit 3: Put First Things First

Habits 4, 5, and 6 then address interdependence:

  • Habit 4: Think Win/Win
  • Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  • Habit 6: Synergize

Finally, the seventh habit is one of renewal and continual improvement, that is, of building one's personal production capability. To be effective, one must find the proper balance between actually producing and improving one's capability to produce. Covey illustrates this point with the fable of the goose and the golden egg.

In the fable, a poor farmer's goose began laying a solid gold egg every day, and the farmer soon became rich. He also became greedy and figured that the goose must have many golden eggs within her. In order to obtain all of the eggs immediately, he killed the goose. Upon cutting it open he discovered that it was not full of golden eggs. The lesson is that if one attempts to maximize immediate production with no regard to the production capability, the capability will be lost. Effectiveness is a function of both production and the capacity to produce.

The need for balance between production and production capability applies to physical, financial, and human assets. For example, in an organization the person in charge of a particular machine may increase the machine's immediate production by postponing scheduled maintenance. As a result of the increased output, this person may be rewarded with a promotion. However, the increased immediate output comes at the expense of future production since more maintenance will have to be performed on the machine later. The person who inherits the mess may even be blamed for the inevitable downtime and high maintenance expense.

Customer loyalty also is an asset to which the production and production capability balance applies. A restaurant may have a reputation for serving great food, but the owner may decide to cut costs and lower the quality of the food. Immediately, profits will soar, but soon the restaurant's reputation will be tarnished, the customer's trust will be lost, and profits will decline.

This does not mean that only production capacity is important. If one builds capacity but never uses it, there will be no production. There is a balance between building production capacity and actually producing. Finding the right tradeoff is central to one's effectiveness.

The above has been an introduction and overview of the 7 Habits. The following introduces the first habit in Covey's framework.


Habit 1:      Be Proactive

A unique ability that sets humans apart from animals is self-awareness and the ability to choose how we respond to any stimulus. While conditioning can have a strong impact on our lives, we are not determined by it. There are three widely accepted theories of determinism: genetic, psychic, and environmental. Genetic determinism says that our nature is coded into our DNA, and that our personality traits are inherited from our grandparents. Psychic determinism says that our upbringing determines our personal tendencies, and that emotional pain that we felt at a young age is remembered and affects the way we behave today. Environmental determinism states that factors in our present environment are responsible for our situation, such as relatives, the national economy, etc. These theories of determinism each assume a model in which the stimulus determines the response.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the death camps of Nazi Germany. While in the death camps, Frankl realized that he alone had the power to determine his response to the horror of the situation. He exercised the only freedom he had in that environment by envisioning himself teaching students after his release. He became an inspiration for others around him. He realized that in the middle of the stimulus-response model, humans have the freedom to choose.

Animals do not have this independent will. They respond to a stimulus like a computer responds to its program. They are not aware of their programming and do not have the ability to change it. The model of determinism was developed based on experiments with animals and neurotic people. Such a model neglects our ability to choose how we will respond to stimuli.

We can choose to be reactive to our environment. For example, if the weather is good, we will be happy. If the weather is bad, we will be unhappy. If people treat us well, we will feel well; if they don't, we will feel bad and become defensive. We also can choose to be proactive and not let our situation determine how we will feel. Reactive behavior can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. By accepting that there is nothing we can do about our situation, we in fact become passive and do nothing.

The first habit of highly effective people is proactivity. Proactive people are driven by values that are independent of the weather or how people treat them. Gandhi said, "They cannot take away our self respect if we do not give it to them." Our response to what happened to us affects us more than what actually happened. We can choose to use difficult situations to build our character and develop the ability to better handle such situations in the future.

Proactive people use their resourcefulness and initiative to find solutions rather than just reporting problems and waiting for other people to solve them.

Being proactive means assessing the situation and developing a positive response for it. Organizations can be proactive rather than be at the mercy of their environment. For example, a company operating in an industry that is experiencing a downturn can develop a plan to cut costs and actually use the downturn to increase market share.

Once we decide to be proactive, exactly where we focus our efforts becomes important. There are many concerns in our lives, but we do not always have control over them. One can draw a circle that represents areas of concern, and a smaller circle within the first that represents areas of control. Proactive people focus their efforts on the things over which they have influence, and in the process often expand their area of influence. Reactive people often focus their efforts on areas of concern over which they have no control. Their complaining and negative energy tend to shrink their circle of influence.

In our area of concern, we may have direct control, indirect control, or no control at all. We have direct control over problems caused by our own behavior. We can solve these problems by changing our habits. We have indirect control over problems related to other people's behavior. We can solve these problems by using various methods of human influence, such as empathy, confrontation, example, and persuasion. Many people have only a few basic methods such as fight or flight. For problems over which we have no control, first we must recognize that we have no control, and then gracefully accept that fact and make the best of the situation.


Habit 1:  Be Proactive

Change starts from within, and highly effective people make the decision to improve their lives through the things that they can influence rather than by simply reacting to external forces.

Habit 2:  Begin with the End in Mind

Develop a principle-centered personal mission statement. Extend the mission statement into long-term goals based on personal principles.

Habit 3:  Put First Things First

Spend time doing what fits into your personal mission, observing the proper balance between production and building production capacity. Identify the key roles that you take on in life, and make time for each of them.

Habit 4:  Think Win/Win

Seek agreements and relationships that are mutually beneficial. In cases where a "win/win" deal cannot be achieved, accept the fact that agreeing to make "no deal" may be the best alternative. In developing an organizational culture, be sure to reward win/win behavior among employees and avoid inadvertantly rewarding win/lose behavior.

Habit 5:  Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

First seek to understand the other person, and only then try to be understood. Stephen Covey presents this habit as the most important principle of interpersonal relations. Effective listening is not simply echoing what the other person has said through the lens of one's own experience. Rather, it is putting oneself in the perspective of the other person, listening empathically for both feeling and meaning.

Habit 6:  Synergize

Through trustful communication, find ways to leverage individual differences to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Through mutual trust and understanding, one often can solve conflicts and find a better solution than would have been obtained through either person's own solution.

Habit 7:  Sharpen the Saw

Take time out from production to build production capacity through personal renewal of the physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual dimensions. Maintain a balance among these dimensions.

Recommended Reading

Covey, Stephen R., The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

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