My biggest influence.
Six years ago this month, Stephen Covey, author of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ died at the age of 79 as a consequence of complications following a fall from his mountain bike. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t quote him and certainly every single one of my coaching clients will have heard many “Coveyisms” during our sessions and workshops.
Twenty-five years ago, I was introduced to Stephen by my good friend and coach, Ed Percival, who also passed too soon a few years ago. On two occasions I had the incredibly good fortune to be coached directly by Stephen and learn first hand, the Seven Habits, which I’ve since sought to distill and communicate in as straightforward manner as possible, not least as several people have told me that the book isn’t the easiest to read.
So, as the summer holidays approach, and I’ll be asked many times: “what book would you recommend?”, I’m going to give my usual reply of, “if you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it recently, then I suggest the 7 Habits” and this time will add, “and read my brief synopsis first as I think it will help.” And here it is.
Each of the 7 Habits is based on Principles. Stephen defines principles as being “unarguable”, whether you’re aware of them or not is irrelevant, they exist. For example, the existence of gravity is a principle. So to is the underlying principle of habit one, “Individuals are responsible for their choices”, or for habit five, “Understanding comes through listening”. The 7 Habits are therefore based on “natural laws” and are timeless, international, and importantly are also gender, race and age neutral – they are applicable to everyone.
Habit One – “Be Proactive.” This habit should cause you to think, “I’m responsible for my behaviour and the choices I make, no one else is.” You are in control of your life. Sure, there are many factors that either are or appear to be out of your control, but not how you choose to respond to them. Until this habit is mastered and properly understood, the rest will not be at your control. You must, and it’s rare for me to be so dogmatic, you must realise that you are in charge of you – not your parents, teachers, bosses, partner, children, friends, church, politicians, society, etc. – you. Once you get this principle then you’ll see life for what it is – a series of challenges and opportunities to address, where you always have options and are responsible for the choices you make.
Habit Two – “Begin with the End in Mind.” Having worked out that only you are in charge of you, what is it that you want? I ask company owners and senior directors, “do you have a business plan for your company?” and nearly always they reply, “yes, of course.” I then ask, “do you have a business plan/life plan, for yourself?” and all too often they respond with an embarrassed look or some vague statement suggesting it’s somewhere in their head. If you don’t know what you want, what’s important to you, then how can you consistently make great decisions? The principle of this habit is that “mental creation precedes physical creation.” And this applies to relationships as much as businesses, buildings or anything else that’s tangible. First create a great picture of what you want, then go and make it happen.
Habit Three – “Put First Things First.” One of my favourite quotes from Stephen is a question he often asked an audience: “are you majoring in minor things?” If you’ve worked out what’s important to you, habit two, then you could have answered, “no, I’m majoring in important things”, but if you haven’t anything more than a rough sense of a general direction for your life then you won’t be highly effective in your decision making. The principle of this habit is that to be effective you need to balance all the important things in your life – health, self, family, friends, work, community, etc., etc. Some people major in one area at the cost of others, for example someone who spends 2-3 hours a day in the gym and has no time for the kids, or more commonly, someone spending 12-14 hours at work, every single day. There is enough time for the important things so long as they are prioritised over the less important and particularly the trivial. In order to prioritise you first need to know what matters most.
The first three habits add up to, what Stephen called, “The Private Victory”, perhaps more commonly known as “Self-mastery”. He suggested that until you had self control it would be impossible to consistently have highly effective relationships with others. Now I’m not suggesting that you cut yourself off for several months until you’ve installed the first three habits, but I am going to say that before you even think of working on other people make sure you’re in control of yourself. This means being proactive and being the master of your responses as opposed to being emotionally driven.
The next three habits are often seen best as one in three parts that lead to the “Public Victory” or, put simply, to great relationships.
Habit Four – “Think Win-Win.” The underlying principle at work with this habit is that all, highly effective, long-term relationships require mutual benefit. Sure, you can have an ok, so-so, relationship that’s one sided, but it could and would be so much better if it was equally positive. In order to achieve this balance, it starts with you wanting the relationship to be great for both parties and not just for yourself. That then requires you to seek out the interests of others. For example, if an employer just takes and takes from an employee, demanding more and more and rarely rewarding them properly or showing any kind of recognition then that employee is likely to leave. If instead the employee is properly looked after and appreciated then they are likely to give even more to their work than they would through being bullied. Indeed, they’re likely to give the most valuable things they have, their discretionary effort, creativity and enthusiasm.
There are several mindsets people choose, (whether consciously or not), including “win-lose”, (I win you don’t), “win”, (I win and I’m not bothered what you get), “lose-win”, (if someone ever says, “it’s easier just to go along with…..” or, “if it makes him happy then that’s enough for me….” or similar, then that’s lose-win). Highly effective people only choose, win-win, not because it’s easy, it isn’t, but because long term it’s the only way to achieve mutual benefit.
Habit Five – “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.” If you want to prescribe really well then first you must diagnose really well. All too often people offer advice without having properly diagnosed the situation. They say things like “oh, I know exactly how you feel”, (no they don’t), or “I had the same thing myself”, (no you didn’t). No two illnesses, redundancies, business failures, marriage breakdowns or any other problem in life is ever exactly the same for two people. So one choice could be to avoid any interaction but this wouldn’t be a highly effective way to lead your life. So instead, it’s about understanding as well as you possibly can and that requires listening as carefully as possible. Not listening with judgement or preparing to answer – listening with the sole intention to understand. The second part of this habit is communicating what you want, “then to be understood”, and this highlights why the first three habits are so important: if you don’t really know what you want from an interaction or negotiation, how will you let someone else know?
Habit Six – “Synergize.” I’m not a fan of this word, and not just when using US spelling. There’s too much jargon in the 7 Habits for my taste and this is the biggest offender. But I do take on board what Stephen was getting at, particularly when you consider the principle of habit six, that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. He also introduced the idea of “The Third Alternative” which is a value I hold dearly. It means that rather than two ideas or viewpoints fighting it out, that instead you work together to seek an even better outcome than either of the two parties have so far identified.
It’s easier to understand habits 4,5 and 6 together. Habit 4 is about seeking the interest of the other. Habit 5 is finding out what matters to them by listening and then making sure they know what matters to you by communicating very clearly. Habit 6 is then working together with the other person to get a better outcome than either of you have imagined so far.
Habit Seven – “Sharpen the Saw.” This habit is really an extension to the Private Victory of habits 1,2 & 3 although it’s also applicable to relationships that run the risk of being taken for granted. In simple terms, you can’t be highly effective or highly productive if you don’t look after yourself. Think of it like a machine, a lawnmower perhaps. If, from day one, you just take it out of the shed and cut the grass, only adding fuel when it runs out and nothing more, it will eventually breakdown. But this will be a gradual degradation. To begin with you’ll hardly notice that it’s not cutting the grass as well until one day when it takes out a whole clump of turf because the blades are blunt. Stephen suggests there are four dimensions you need to keep sharp: Physical, Mental, Social/Emotional and Spiritual. I’m an atheist so have a different definition for spiritual than some people who practice a religion. To me, it’s about experiencing the wonders of the world, such as watching the early morning mist, hearing a baby laugh or crying at a poignant lyric in a song. The other three, physical, mental and social/emotional are pretty obvious but what’s not so easy is to get all four in balance. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “No man is an island.” “Familiarity breeds contempt.” I could offer 100 or more proverbs but I’m sure you get the point. Habit Seven is based on ancient wisdom. Indeed, the same can be said of the other six too.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People are, to my mind, unarguable, natural and the best compass you could ever have. But they’re hard to practice as I know from 25 years of daily application. I still find myself being too reactive, not thinking enough about others, being distracted by minor things at the expense of the important and much more. But at least now I’ve become more aware and have developed ways to get back on track. Such as sharing my acquired knowledge – indeed, writing this benefits me at least as much as anyone who finds it worthwhile, probably more.
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