As a husband, father, teacher, and highly acclaimed author, the late Dr. Stephen R. Covey spells out the habits that lead to effectiveness in organizational and personal relationships in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In preparation for this book, Covey discovered that the recent success literature published in the United States contained techniques for changing the externals while ignoring the root problems. This outward focus was a complete contrast to the success literature that was published in the United States during the first 150 years of its founding, which “focused on what could be called the Character Ethic” (26). The character ethic dealt primarily with the core issues of the individual, which serves as the basis of Covey’s approach in this book. Covey believes that behavioral change will only produce temporary success, while true and lasting change begins with the heart and is essential for highly effective people.
Central to Dr. Covey’s prescription for effectiveness are seven habits, which he defines as “the intersection of knowledge, skill and desire” (55) that will help advance an individual from dependence to independence to interdependence. Therefore, habits 1, 2, and 3 aim to advance the individual from dependence to independence, and habits 4, 5, and 6 seek to propel the individual from independence to interdependence.
“The most basic habit of a highly effective person in any environment is the habit of proactivity” (78). Covey describes proactive people as those who are influenced by external stimuli, yet respond to their present circumstances based upon values and principles. After all, “It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us” (81). Humans are unique in that we have “the ability to choose our response” (78). Therefore Covey describes habit 1 in terms of focusing our efforts toward areas of influence, particularly oneself.
In order for an individual to move from dependence to independence, the individual must not only be proactive, but he must also develop a broader perspective upon life. For this reason Covey encourages the reader to learn habit 2: beginning with the end in mind. It is vital to understand where we are going in order to identify what is deeply important to us. Effective people center their lives upon principles rather than family, money, work, or even self. Our center affects “our motivations, our daily decisions, our actions (or, in too many cases, our reactions), and our interpretation of events. That’s why understanding your own center is so important” (135). Therefore, one must begin with the end in order to develop a personal mission statement, fixated upon principle rather than circumstance.
“Habit 3 is the personal fruit, the practical fulfillment of Habits 1 and 2” (155). The first two habits are essential to “organize and execute around priorities” (158), and as priorities are established, Covey describes a four-quadrant personal management matrix, which is the tool used to implement habit 3. Quadrant one of this matrix is labeled as urgent and important, quadrant two is classified as important but not urgent, quadrant three is urgent and unimportant, and quadrant four is unimportant and not urgent. Effective people spend the majority of their time and energy in quadrant two. To effectively live in quadrant two there must be a healthy balance of scheduling priorities, avoidance of neglecting important areas in life, and flexibility. “Effective people are not problem-minded; they’re opportunity-minded. They feed opportunities and starve problems. They think preventively” (163). Rather than constantly reacting to the urgent, effective people live both proactively and principle-centered in order to put first things first.
The first three habits produce increased self-confidence while habits 4, 5, and 6 produce relational growth. Therefore, habit 4, which uses a Win/Win or No Deal concept, instructs one to seek mutual agreements that benefit every party involved, but if a mutually beneficial solution is not available, there is no deal. To put it simply: everyone must win or no one wins at all. Obviously, there are some situations where Win/Win or No Deal is not viable, but “When you have no deal as an option in your mind, you feel liberated because you have no need to manipulate people, to push your own agenda, to drive for what you want” (224).
In order to truly achieve the mutual agreement that results in Win/Win, it is imperative that one truly listens and understands the problem from the other person’s perspective (habit 5). Too often people “rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first” (249). Interdependence will not be achieved apart from a true understanding of the other person involved, and the only way to deeply understand the other person is through emphatic listening. Emphatic listening involves truly stepping into the shoes of another and attempting to see the world as they see it, both emotionally and intellectually. Then, after understanding the other point of view, ideas can be presented in the context of the other person, and this will “significantly increase the credibility of your ideas” (269). In Covey’s framework for highly effective people, habit 5 is the first step towards Win/Win solutions.
Habit 6 is synergy, which is the expression of the other habits collectively. Essentially, synergy is the peak of interdependence, because the whole is greater than its collective parts. According to Covey, synergy “is teamwork, team building, the development of unity and creativity with other human beings” (295). Differences among individuals are valued, as synergistic communication often discovers new solutions and new ideas that would not have surfaced if not for all the parts working together. Covey believes that there is almost always a “synergistic third alternative… that will be better for everyone concerned” (296).
The final habit in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is renewal, which is crucial to the cultivation of all the other habits. Renewal is concerned with “preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have—you. It’s renewing the four dimensions of your nature—physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional” (300). Physical renewal includes proactive care of the body. Spiritual renewal involves intentional commitment to the renewal of the value system that is the center of principled living. Mental renewal takes place through reading, writing, organizing, and planning, while social/emotional renewal happens in the course of daily life through intentional conversations and service to others. Habit 7 is ultimately the renewal and continual development of one’s personal effectiveness. “The Daily Private Victory—a minimum of one hour a day in renewal of the physical, spiritual, and mental dimensions—is the key to the development of the Seven Habits” (316).
Dr. Stephen Covey presents a lifelong “inside-out” approach to principle-centered living, which is much needed in our quick fix, self-help culture. The solution, as he diagnoses, is to get to the heart of the matter rather than simply correcting external behavior. Covey presents the reader with a Gospel prognosis of the heart, but unfortunately, he presents no Gospel message. In fact, he refers to Christianity as something that simply works for him, while placing other methods and religions on a similar plane. For instance, at one point in the book, he quotes Martin Luther on praying to God, then in the very next paragraph he quotes a Far Eastern Zen master on meditation (306), and both of these are, in Covey’s opinion, viable options.
As I read this book, I waited eagerly for Covey to make a statement about the Gospel and its transforming effects, but he never did. He referred to his belief in God, but at no time did he deliver the Good News. From my perspective, this book presents effectiveness as the chief end of man rather than a life spent in enjoyment of the eternal God.
Another concern I have is Covey’s neglect of those who share his opinion. He writes, “I don’t want to talk, to communicate with someone who agrees with me; I want to communicate with you because you see it differently. I value the differences” (290). While I most definitely value various opinions and perspectives, I see neglecting those with whom we agree as going against the very nature of the church, which is striving to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4:13).
While The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People provides much practical wisdom, the teachings in this book will just be “a striving after the wind” (Ecc 6:9) apart from the foundation of the Gospel. Due to these concerns, as well as others, such as Covey’s new-age language about sidestepping “negative energy”, his hardline commitment to a third way (which is not always possible, particularly regarding biblical orthodoxy), and his low view of the church, I would not recommend this book for a new or immature Christian, but it could prove helpful for those who are more established in the faith. While Covey’s contribution to living a highly effective life should not be discounted, apart from the Gospel a highly effective life is not possible.
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Covey, Stephen R., The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004 (Anniversary edition 2013). 391 pp. $17.00.
4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”
Hi Corey! Thanks for the post. I read the book years ago but don’t remember much of it. Just curious though, why were you expecting any statements about the gospel? I’ve never understood this book to be “Christian literature” so I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Hi Cheryl, that’s an excellent question. This book is not a “Christian” book, but the influence that the Bible had on Covey’s life permeates much of his thought, which is apparent throughout his book. While I realize that he’s not writing this to preach the gospel, his understanding of the human condition is consistent with the Christian Gospel. I knew he wouldn’t make any gospel statements, but my point was to demonstrate how close this book gets to the gospel but never actually gets there. My expectation was more of a hope and desire rather than a realistic anticipation.
Ok that’s a helpful clarification. Just curious, did you know Covey was Mormon? If you didn’t, do you think your critique would’ve been different had you had that information, or would you/did you make the same critique anyway?
I knew he was Mormon, and it seemed like his religion carried over into his writing, especially in that he writes about change from the inside-out apart from the heart transformative gospel.
Thanks for your questions. I enjoy the dialogue.