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Some people call The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, one of the most important self-help books written in the past twenty years. Others say it is one of the best business books written recent history. Regardless of whether it is called a self-help book or a business book, it has been a wildly popular and profitable publication. Seven Habits has sold over fifteen million copies and has been on various bestseller lists almost continuously since its publication in 1989. Indeed, Covey’s blockbuster book spent five consecutive years, 1991-1995, as America’s top nonfiction bestseller.
Covey has deeply held religious beliefs. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons, which is reflected in his writings. There is a strong Judeo-Christian work ethic espoused and the concept of an individual taking personal responsibility for his or her own personal development, and the seven habits he refers to in this book bear a strong connection to the Mormon Church’s thirteen fundamental beliefs. Covey believes these seven habits of highly effective people can be learned and, conversely, old habits that promote ineffectiveness can be unlearned.
A major issue in learning and adopting the seven habits of highly effective people, Covey opines in Seven Habits, is one of paradigm shifting. A paradigm is defined as a basic mental framework that strongly influences a person’s ideas, beliefs and, therefore, actions. A person has paradigms about everything in life: what makes a good marriage, what is a good college, what is acceptable social behavior, and on infinitum. Until a person can shift from one way of looking at a problem, or situation, to another, he or she will be locked into old paradigms that can restrict new understandings and growth. Moving the United States Coast Guard from the Department of Transportation to the newly formed Department of Homeland Security will require certain federal authorities to perform a paradigm shift from how they previously viewed the role and function of the USCG to a new way of thinking. Habitual ways of looking at paradigms create inflexibility in attempts at problem solving, management, and leadership.
Covey divides his seven habits of highly effective people into three interrelated categories; the first are habits of character, the second are habits of outward expression that lead to interdependence with others, and the last habit focusing on sustaining the growth process. This division becomes clear when he lists his habits.
Habits of Independence:
* Habit #1. Be proactive. Covey writes it is up to the individual to seize the initiative to use his or her resources to work toward goals. He speaks of a circle of influence and a circle of concern and postulates that worrying about things beyond your circle of influence is not productive, but working within your circle of influence is the best way to maximize your effectiveness.
* Habit #2. Begin With The End In Mind. Covey illustrates this habit with a rather chilling question: “What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?” He then adds that you can aid your progress toward achieving your goals if you practice visualization, so when you finally attempt a task, you will have already done it countless times in your imagination. This is a method coaches have taught free throw shooters to practice for decades; visualize your stance, your pre-shot rituals and finally visualize the ball going cleanly through the net. Covey writes, “We may be very busy, we may be very efficient, but we will also be truly effective when we begin with the end in mind.”
* Habit #3. Put First Things First. This is a time management habit and Covey summarizes what he means by writing, “Organize and execute around priorities.” He develops a matrix where he divides all activities in four categories: In Quadrant I are things that are important and urgent. In Quadrant II are things that are important, but not urgent. In Quadrant III are items that are urgent, but not important. And finally, In Quadrant IV are things that at not important and not urgent. Habit #3, including Covey’s matrix about time management, is the “Golden Nugget” of this book. Covey states that successful people keep most of their activities in Quadrant II because they can plan and prepare for future activities. Those people who constantly find their activities in Quadrant I will eventually burn out with excessive stress and strain because they are in a continuous crisis mode. Those individuals who find most of their activities in Quadrants III and IV are often out of control and dependant on others or institutions to help them live their lives.
Covey believes that the term “time management” is actually a misnomer; that is, the challenge is not how to manage time, but rather how to manage ourselves.
One of the central themes of the book is finding the correct P/PC balance. If we cannot manage ourselves, and our time, we will never be able to maintain proper Production. The “P” refers to production and the “PC” refers to production capability. He illustrates this P/PC dichotomy by using a machine as an illustration. If you ruin a machine twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year you will get great production initially, but eventually that machine will break down and be ruined or need repair. If, however, you run the machine on a regularly scheduled maintenance basis, you may not achieve the same production numbers as a machine being continuously used, but it will not suffer major breakdowns and over the long run the production will be greater.
Habits of Interdependence.
* Habit #4. Think Win-Win. This is a habit that encourages you to seek solutions of mutual benefit to all parties concerned, as opposed to win-lose situations where one person wins and the other person loses. Covey illustrates this habit by asserting that a powerful programming agent early in life is athletic competition where students develop a basic paradigm that life is a zero sum game; that is, if someone wins, someone must lose. To be truly successful, Covey writes, a person needs to know how to leverage the strengths of others and that is done not by creating win/lose situations, but rather seeking to create win/win situations. Indeed, he feels no deal is better than a non-win-win deal.
* Habit #5. Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood. This is a communication habit that focuses on empathic listening skills. He asks how can you create win/win situations if you do not listen to the other person? Physicians diagnose before they prescribe. Top salespeople discover the client’s needs before they offer a solution. Likewise, individuals need to exercise empathy; they must seek to first understand the other person’s point of view before offering their own solutions
* Habit #6. Synergize. Covey defines synergy as meaning the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He believes we need to value the differences between people and how they view the world and realize their paradigms might not be our paradigms, but they are equally valid for them. Once a person accepts the validity of seeking win-win solution, the habit of synergize or seeking cooperative teamwork becomes apparent. Synergy results from valuing differences and by bringing those differences together in the spirit of mutual respect.
* Habit #7. Sharpen The Saw. In self-renewal, Covey cites four areas of our life that require constant attention: physical, mental, emotional-social and spiritual. He wrote that people get too busy producing or “sawing” and rarely take the time to stop and sharpen their saw or those four aspects of their lives. If they would take the time to stop and sharpen, the time they lost sharpening would be more than compensated by increased production. The example cited to illustrate this point is one of machinery. If a machine runs full throttle 24 hours a day for seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year, without time being set aside for maintenance, it will soon break under the stress and strain. If however, that same machine has a regular maintenance schedule, it could work indefinitely.
Covey distinguishes something he calls the “Character Ethic” from the “Personality Ethic.” He believes Americans have moved away from embracing character ethics, or broad enduring permanent values such as honesty, loyalty and even the Ten Commandments, and turned towards Personality Ethics, where the emphasis is now on such items as how to dress for success, one-minute solutions and quick fixes. He feels the newer emphasis on personality focuses attention on short-term solutions whereas the attribute associated with the Character Ethic promotes healthier moral long-term solutions. This was my favorite part of the book because America truly has moved away from a Kantian moral absolutism thought process and has fostered more of a moral relativism approach.
Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People is a book that cannot be read one time and be fully understood. Each habit contains so much information and wisdom that it is virtually impossible to internalize what Covey is saying without reading and rereading each section. It is impossible to cite one item as the most important as related to leadership because they are inter-related.
The one concept explained in this book that had the greatest impact on my life, to date, was Covey’s discussion of time management. In high school, when my father first introduced me to this book, I was rather disorganized and somewhat chaotic in ordering my priorities. Although I had never read it, my father explained parts of the book well enough so that I could benefit from some of its knowledge. I distinctly remember filling out the time matrix chart introduced in Habit 3 and discovering most of my activities fell into Quadrant I. It was obvious I was not planning my activities, but rather reacting to events as they occurred to me. Subsequently, I have tried to keep my activities in Quadrant II, with varying degrees of success.
As I move from the Academy into the non-academic world I believe Covey’s admonition in Habit 5 to “seek first to understand and then be understood” will gain greater importance in my life. Realizing that my paradigms may not be someone else’s paradigms, or my paradigms might have been right at one time, but the passage of time requires me to re-examine the conclusions I have reached, will be a prime requisite to effective leadership.
I believe that Seven Habits of Highly Effective Leaders will be one of those books that will stay on my bookshelf for years to come and I will revisit it countless times to reread selected passages, not just to reinforce what I remember Covey saying, but to apply his timeless wisdom to new situations I encounter in whatever career I choose.