Covey Teaches Good Habits

Covey_review_08152016Stephen R. Covey.[1] 1989. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Simon and Schuster; Fireside Book.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

So much of the time, we want God to solve our problems and to clean up our messes that we should be working on ourselves. Working as a chaplain intern in the emergency department, I started to notice that about half the patients that I saw daily came in complaining of medical problems arising from poor lifestyle choices—addictions, risky sexual practices, obesity related illnesses, and stress related illnesses. When I mentioned my observation to the head surgeon, he corrected me—it was not half the patients, it was three-quarters of them. If we perform so poorly in taking care of our physical bodies, what does that say about our performance in our relationships and careers?  (And our need for God…)

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey presents: “a holistic, integrated approach to personal and interpersonal effectiveness.” (9) Effectiveness here means that the biblical teaching is boiled down into principles for living and working effectively, without necessarily understanding how those principles came to be. Since God is sovereign over the whole universe, the principles of the universe are, of course, also his.  In this case, Covey is a Harvard MBA with a doctorate from Brigham Young University (a Mormon school) where, at the time of publication, was also a faculty member in the Marriott School of Management.

Covey starts with a lengthy introduction where he distinguishes personality from character, writing:

“In stark contrast, almost all of the literature [on how to be successful in life and career] in the first 150 years or so focused on what could be called the Character Ethic as the foundation of success—things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule….

But shortly after World War I the basic view of success shifted from the Character Ethic to what we might call the Personality Ethic. Success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes, and behaviors, skills, and techniques, that lubricate the processes of human interaction.” (18-19)

Covey then goes on to say that the elements of the Personality Ethic are certainly important, they are also second traits; the elements of the Character Ethic, by contrast, are primary traits (21-23). Being primary means that they not only affect our habits profoundly, they also affect our very perception of the world—our worldview or, more importantly, the lens that we use to interpret the things we see and experience (24-31). “Being is seeing” he says (32) His seven habits therefore focus on these primary traits.  Covey summarizes saying:

“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 unarguably ‘there’ as laws such as gravity are in the physical world.” (32)

To make his point, Covey tells the story of a confrontation on a foggy day between an arrogant battleship captain and a lighthouse attendant over who would change course. Who do you suppose ended up changing course? Sometimes, knowing the difference between objective and subjective reality is a matter of life and death, and arrogance is not an option—to be effective we must be willing to start by reforming ourselves and listening to those around us. (33, 37, 42)

Covey defines:

“a habit as the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Knowledge is a theoretical paradigm, the what to do and the why. Skill is the how to do. And desire is the motivation, the want to do. In order to make something a habit in our lives, we have to have all three.” (47)

Covey drives his point home with a Venn diagram showing the intersection of three circles (knowledge, skill, and desire) with habits occupying the intersection of the three circles (48).

Covey does not see effective people working alone; rather, effective people involve the people around them in what he refers to as the maturity continuum, writing:

“On the maturity continuum, dependence is the paradigm of you—you take care of me; you come through for me; you didn’t come through; I blame you for the results.

Independence is the paradigm of I—I can do it; I am responsible; I am self-reliant; I can choose.

Interdependence is the paradigm of we—we can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine our talents and abilities and create something greater together.” (49)

While it is obvious that team-work is required in any large scale project, Covey makes an observation that is less obvious:

“Interdependence is choice only independent people can make. Dependent people cannot choose to become interdependent. They don’t have the character to do it; they don’t own enough of themselves.” (51)

Unable to control themselves, dependent people cannot perform well in teams; only independent people are free to join teams, not threatened by working harmoniously with others. Consequently, Covey sees the 7 habits of highly effective people including both individual character traits (independent people) and relational characteristics (teamly attitudes). Covey’s seven habits therefore are:

  1. “Be proactive.
  2. Begin with the end in mind.
  3. Put first things first.
  4. Think win/win.
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
  6. Synergize.
  7. Sharpen the saw.” (53)

Covey lays out his approach in part one of this book, which includes two sections. He then writes the heart of his books in chapters for each of the seven habits.  These chapters are preceded by acknowledgements and followed by several appendices and indices.

Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has educated a generation of business and church leaders on how to be effective in working within organizations. Early in my government career, I read this book and I spent much of the rest of my career reaping the benefits. It is hard to accurately access the fruit of Covey’s insights and his habits have each spawned books elaborating his habits, even if unknowingly. Read and study the book—both you and your colleagues will be glad that you did.


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