Stephen R Covey’s book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People®, which remains an international bestseller, has been in bookshelves for well over 15 years now and its relevance and practicability in today’s society cannot be watered down by the element of time.
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Reading through the book, the reader is swept in different emotions upon the realization of the myriad of truths contained therein. Stephen reaches out to the reader by drawing comparisons between his view of life and real-life situations. Indeed, the book is embedded by various anecdotes that drive the point home while grasping the reader’s attention.
The book begins with a brief preface by the author on the dynamics of character ethics over personality ethics. According to him, the personality ethic has been too overemphasized and attempts to offer what he terms as “Aspirin-like” solutions, or quick fix solutions (Covey 8).
He draws parallels with the principle that for one to harvest then he must so and consequently, effectiveness and success in life can only be inculcated into an individual through the steady development of a strong character ethic (Covey 10).
The tone in the book is positive while cautious that being positive is not enough for one to achieve effectiveness. He thus calls for a paradigm shift (Adapted from Thomas Kuhn’s book) from focus on a circle of concern to a circle of influence.
Covey as cited in (Covey 21) defines a circle of influence as a positive view of the world that has developed from a good character ethic that involves an individual looking for solutions from within and taking responsibility rather than apportioning blame to factors which one cannot change (circle of concern). He calls this the inside-out approach.
One is indeed drawn into Covey’s description of an effective life through development of good habits brought by leading a goal oriented and disciplined life. He states the production (P) and productive capability (PC) theory where he suggests that for success to be achieved, we should focus on production and not the production capability (Covey 26). The book is a must read for all for its lessons are truly informative and life-changing.
The book has four parts; the Preface, Private Victory, Public Victory and Renewal. The preface introduces Covey’s focus on character ethics Vis a Vis personality ethics. He explains the demerits of the latter while praising the former as good grounds for the development of a successful of effective life.
He reiterates the importance of maturity, hard work and discipline as the key points towards a strong character ethic. The Preface also highlights the various situations that people find themselves in and prescribes the book as a good foundation towards their solution.
According to Covey, private victories refer to a situation where the individual has discovered himself/ herself and recognizes their independent will and power to change their lives. He calls upon individuals to be proactive and be resourceful while learning how to take initiative over their lives.
Covey then draws a parallel between persons who focus on the negative side of life and terms then as reactionaries with persons who instead focus on issues within their control and attempt to make something out of them (Covey 34).
Public victories have much to do with others. Covey cited in (Covey 95) calls for interdependence, communication and understanding among people so as to create synergistic gains in their lives. He advocates for listening, empathy and patience in one’s dealings with others and suggests that individuals should only focus on a win-win situation where all parties mutually benefit.
In Part 4 of the book, Covey states that the individual needs to nourish himself in a holistic manner; physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This he suggests enables the individual to realize synergy both intrinsic and extrinsic.
What the book promises
According to Covey cited in (Covey 30), the book will enable an individual have a deep knowledge of themselves. It then will create a desire for change in the individual to focus more on a value-based and goal oriented life.
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It would instil in an individual a sense of identity, direction integrity and control over their lives thus making them successful and effective people. Finally, the book promises to heal and rebuild broken relationships by offering time-tested solutions to conflict.
As stated earlier, private victories refer to success or effectiveness at an individual level and focuses on what an individual can do to improve effectiveness.
Covey begins this part by stating that self awareness is a quality that enables an individual to evaluate their actions and learn whether he/she is going in the right direction (Covey 32). He states that certain deterministic factors exist that affect our self esteem such as genetic, psychological and environmental factors which much have to do on the impact family and friends have on an individual’s self esteem.
Being proactive means that an individual takes initiative and admits that they bear responsibility over their own lives independent of the so-called deterministic factors. He differentiates between being proactive and being reactive. He states that an individual can rise above stimulus and response unlike in animals thus preventing the person from having his/her life being determined by other people’s actions (Covey 32).
Covey cited in (Covey 36) states that individuals should be resourceful and always ensure that they are in active control of their lives. He states that for one to be effective, one has to subordinate feelings for value which means that emotions should be suppressed to prevent the individual from going of their course.
He also states that one should focus more on the circle of influence rather than that of concern while at the same time expanding the former through establishing the root causes of conflict and problems and solving them (Covey 39).
Habit 1 is a good guide for individuals in daily life and its value cannot be supplanted. The need for people to take initiative in their own lives is intrinsic to problem solving and development of working relationships. However, Covey oversimplifies the issue of love by stating it as a “verb” and not an emotion thus asking for people to suppress “love” emotions (Covey 38).
Studies on the issue of love and even logic itself teach that the issue of love is much more complex and not a mere “verb”. Also, Covey does not show us how being proactive is a character ethic and not a personality issue. Nevertheless, habit 1 is practical and definitely a catalyst for effectiveness.
Begin with the end in mind
Covey cited in (Covey 46) starts this section by asking the reader to consider their death and draw from it, the legacy they would want to leave behind and begin to practice it in their daily lives.
He states that the power of individuals to imagine can be a powerful tool for effectiveness where the person creates first in his mind then applies the creative imagination into real life. He states that mental creativity is superior to physical since a physical creation without a mental picture would be unsuccessful.
Leadership is described here as directing efforts in the right place and is differentiated from management which is doing things in the right manner. Covey calls upon people to harness leadership by establishing where the effort is needed and to proceed to apply it. In business he likens leadership to acts like monitoring environmental change and customer buying habits and to ensure focus on them (Covey 48).
He advises the reader to draft a personal mission statement from where he/she can refer to as a guide whenever a question of principle arises.
He further states that the principles stated therein should be at the centre of the individual’s circle of influence which enables him/her to prioritize on those matters that are of real importance. He refers to them as matters in the second quadrant and are mainly issues based on value that act as a guide, security and power to the individual (Covey 60).
Covey cited in (Covey 65) introduces the ‘brain-dominance’ theory where he states that we should strive to use the right side of the brain which is the perceptive and intuitive part more often. He states that a balanced use of the whole brain gives rise to an effective individual. Roles and goals are then to be considered as part of the focus on the end result.
The application suggestions stated under this habit are very helpful as they direct the individual to adopt concise goals and to remain focused in their endeavour to be successful or effective. However, the use of the brain-dominance test is more of personality than character and therefore Covey tends to stray from the initial topic which is to emphasize a strong character ethic.
Put first things first
Under this habit, Covey cited in (Covey 75) discusses certain aspects of goal setting and the sustenance of a good character ethic. He advises that the individual should practice self management, discipline, time management and goal setting. He states that time management need not be time based but results based since the former tends to bring in an element of routine and eliminates spontaneity which is a crucial part of life.
According to Covey (Covey 77) the reader should endeavour to be oriented towards creating opportunities rather than being problem minded. He states that the focus on problems derails an individual’s effectiveness and prevents him from meeting set goals. The ability to say ‘no’ is also stated as a necessary part in the prioritizing of an individual’s needs (Covey 78).
He adds that scheduling, day planning and delegation where possible all enable an individual to move from problem solving to opportunity utilization (Covey 82).
Covey calls for steward delegation where the individual to whom the work is delegated is left to his own means to produce a result rather than gofer delegation where instructions are issued (Covey 86). He states that this is applicable to both the family and organizational setting.
The habit attempts to bring focus into an individual’s discipline in meeting set goals and targets. Though it is more oriented towards organizational behaviour it can in some sense apply to relationships among family and friends.
However, Covey does not suggest anything newer than the already available information on goal setting and priorities. Nevertheless, this does not signify that the need to put first things first is not important for effectiveness.
Covey as cited in (Covey 93) begins this part by putting across an excellent theory of an emotional bank account. This account just like a bank account, involves deposits where an individual does good and positive acts towards others that enable him/her win their trust.
Likewise, withdrawals are made from every demand or negative thing an individual does against the same people. He thus calls upon character that creates more deposits than withdrawals by suggesting that individuals understand others, pay attention even to little things, clarify other people’s expectations of them, show personal integrity and apologize when in the wrong.
From the above, Covey states that in any dealing, an individual should strive to produce a win-win situation which is palatable to both parties (Covey 103).
Win-win situations differ from win-lose situations where competition produces a single winner while the others lose, lose-win situations (Covey 104) where one concedes defeat in order to achieve popularity or any other ulterior motive, lose-lose situations (Covey 105) where individuals prefer that no-one wins and win (Covey 106) situations where an individual doesn’t care about others’ predicaments.
Covey cited in (Covey 109) states that to achieve a win-win situation, one should have integrity, maturity and an abundance mentality (where one believes that everyone can benefit). He advises that where a win-win situation is not applicable, it is better to have no deal (Covey 114).
This habit is a good idea but its practicability is somewhat questionable. A win-win or no-deal situation is not always likely to produce positive results especially where one rejects a good deal because it is not win-win. Its application may be construed in a business sense as naive and may place the organization in a precarious situation.
Seek first to understand then to be understood
Empathetic communication is emphasized where one places himself in the situation of another so as to understand their point of view (Covey 121). It is differentiated from sympathy which usually does not yield understanding (Covey 122).
Covey cited in (Covey 129) emphasizes that individuals develop good communication skills that involve listening, perception and consideration. He introduces the Greek method of ethos, pathos and logos where one establishes trust, empathizes then introduces logic as a means of negotiation and persuasion (Covey 130).
This habit is also crucial to effectiveness and Covey hits the nail on the head on its importance and practicability. Communication is also vital not only in organizations but also in personal relationships and good communication is nourishment for one’s relationships.
However, Covey adapts the same overly positive thinking tone he rejects in the preface of the book. Positive thought does not always lead to positive reactions and Covey fails to capture situations where people prefer straightforwardness without involvement of emotion especially in business.
Covey cited in (Covey 134) emphasizes on the importance of individuals working as one to produce positive results. Synergistic gains arise from creative cooperation and respectful communication.
He states that though a conflict may arise where there are only two possible results, a third alternative exists and if followed through would generate synergy (Covey 139). Covey calls for the valuing of individual differences as a strength (Covey 142).
The force field analysis refers to a situation of balance where an individual is held back by negative forces (Covey 143). Synergy from cooperation helps to break these forces.
However good synergy may be effective, Covey again chooses to be overly positive and does not appreciate situations where no synergy can be created e.g. where one party is already biased or is malicious. Synergy would require both parties to be positive minded and while one can be, the other might not be and this is outside one’s circle of influence.
Sharpen the saw
To achieve effectiveness, the author suggests that we have to sharpen the saw which involves keeping ourselves in the right state of health and mind for us to meet the set goals and values in our mission statements (Covey 147).
Covey states that the individual needs to maintain good spiritual, physical, mental and social/emotional balance. Such balance can be achieved through activities such as healthy eating, exercise, meditation, good music, reading, writing and ‘scripting’ others (Covey 148-155).
The author also advocates for learning and committing oneself to positive activities while facilitating a paradigm shift or transition in their lives (Covey 162). This is all good for one to remain focussed and to be highly effective. However, the emphasis on the spiritual part and God may leave out people with different views on religion.
This book attempts to give the reader a good foothold in all areas of life. It is a holistic book and clearly Stephen Covey did set a high standard for other writers to follow in terms of universal appeal and simplistic truths. It is a good guide book and as the author himself suggests, should be read occasionally with the application parts being put into good use.
The book may contain some inherent weaknesses as stipulated in my analysis; they are wide apart and mildly insignificant to the overall effect or message of the book. I would recommend the book as a must read for any individual who feels that they need direction and focus in life.
Covey, Stephen. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful lessons in Personal Change. Franklin Covey Co, 1989. Print