On The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
by Stephen R.Covey

This book is a surprise: an inspirational self-empowerment book that isn't a complete pile of fluff. Maybe I'm just at that stage in life where one begins to appreciate self-help books, but I don't think so; I think this one really is head and shoulders better than the others. That's not to say that it is completely fluffless; Covey's ideas are all couched in phraseology with the texture if not the smell of fluffdom. But the ideas themselves are worth putting up with the nagging suspicion that by publicly admitting enjoyment of this book one is going to be ostracized forevermore as a confirmed airhead.

The Seven Habits

One of Covey's ideas is that everyone goes through three maturity stages: dependence, independence, and interdependence. I discuss this more in the perfect employee document, but the new idea is that reaching our so-American ultimate achievement of adult independence is not the be-all and end-all after all. We have to then learn to work with others to achieve goals beyond the means of any single individual. Obvious when said right out, but I've never really thought about it so explicitly before.     Covey then lays out how his 7 habits fit into this maturity scale, using the following drawing:


    This typically self-helpish hokey-looking figure is a good memory device for Covey's seven habits. The idea is that one starts at the bottom, acquires the first 3 habits to become independent rather than dependent, acquires the next 3 habits to move to interdependence, then uses the last habit to improve further.

The First Three Habits
The first three habits let you take conscious control of your actions (so that you can proceed to change your habits, which would otherwise just form unconsciously in an unplanned way); make you plan what your goals are; and force you to use strict time management to achieve those goals. Covey gives plenty of real-life examples and concrete guidance techniques for each habit, so that the book acts as a concrete how-to guide rather than just philosophical pablum. For instance, for Habit 3 (on time management) Covey explain the difference between urgent and important tasks, and how one can get out of crisis (aka fire-fighting) mode so as to have time for the really important things.
    The thing is, these really are the key points in organizing one's life and achieving one's goals. If more people adopted these first three habits, they'd be happier and more successful. Very simple basic truths, well stated here.
    Many people reach the independence plateau through application of these first three habits, and think they've reached the pinnacle of achievement. Company founders are often at this level; they're super competent in many areas, have achieved great things, but something seems to be missing in moving on to a successful company. What's missing is an understanding of how to work with other people.

The Next Three Habits
The next three habits allow one to work cooperatively, to mutual benefit, rather than competitively; to improve communication skills to bring out the best in other people; and to work with other people so that skills complement and the result is far better than one could do alone. If everyone had these skills, backbiting office politics would become a thing of the past. People really can work together to achieve more than they would as individuals, and this shows how to do it.

The Last Habit
The seventh habit doesn't ring very true for me. The idea is that one can continually strive to improve, but the great value of the other six habits is that Covey has worked out in detail a plan that one might never create for oneself no matter how hard one tries. In other words, the seventh habit is a platitude rather than a concrete guideline, in comparison to the others. Or who knows, perhaps I'm just not at a maturity level to appreciate it yet.

It's a Management Book, Too

Covey's ideas are offered as a way to achieve one's personal goals, but the spillover into one's business life is unavoidable. These habits will unavoidably cause one to become a leader first of oneself, and then of others. Reading this book will not turn you into a manager against your will, but the inner direction these habits supply one do prove attractive to others who haven't yet achieved such direction. In other words, it'll make you a leader, not a manager.
    To quote Covey quoting Drucker, "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." As John Walker mentions, good executives lead, poor ones simply manage and should stick to lower levels of the company. But again, we're not talking about a pathway to getting large salaries and bossing around groups of people; becoming a leader in one's own life is the most valuable aspect of leadership; ability to lead others is a consequence you may choose to employ or not, as best fits your life goals.

Why This Appeals To Me

The ideas herein are what I've been trying to formulate for myself for years. I have some of these habits in a hit or miss fashion, and now with Covey's chart as a roadmap I can buckle down and try to adopt these habits more consistently. I've gotten far enough along this road to see that this is a pretty good description of the philosophy I'd have developed for myself in another couple decades.
    But I can't help but be honest in saying that the real appeal of this book is that it could act as a manual for those other people I encounter who are just starting on this journey. I come across so many people at the first two plateaus, and I haven't been able to phrase for them my ideas about how they could improve. If everyone I work with adopted these habits, we'd achieve a lot more and would have a better time doing it. There's no downside, either; these are ideas that make one a better human being who can get more done on all fronts. Strong and even fanatical sounding words, but I really believe it; and after all what would a self-help book be without a life-changing message?
Substantive changes:
    April 26, 1996: created.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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