in: Character, Habits, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #607: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

It’s been 30 years since the landmark self-management book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was published. It’s been called the most influential business book of the 20th century and the principles it espouses have become embedded in our culture. The 7 Habits has had a big impact on my own life since the first time I read it over 20 years ago as a high schooler. A 30th anniversary edition of the book is out with new insights from the late Stephen Covey’s children. Today, it’s my pleasure to speak to one of them, Stephen M.R. Covey. Stephen is the oldest of the Covey children, played an instrumental role in the launch of the first edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, as well as in his father’s company, Franklin Covey, and is himself the author of the book The Speed of Trust. Today on the show, Stephen and I discuss why The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has had such staying power and why it’s just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. We then walk through the seven habits, exploring how each is lived individually, as well as work together to create a flourishing life. If you’ve never read The 7 Habits, this episode is a great introduction. And if you’ve read it before, this is a succinct refresher on a set of principles worth building your life around.

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Show Highlights

  • Why has 7 Habits resonated with so many people for so long
  • What Covey found in his study of the history of personal development literature 
  • What does it mean to be proactive?
  • Your circle of influence vs. your circle of concern
  • What does it look like to begin with the end in mind?
  • Putting first things first 
  • Moving to maturity with thinking win-win 
  • The power of empathy 
  • What does “synergy” really mean?
  • The capstone habit 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of The 7 habits of highly effective people by Stephen R.Covey.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. It’s been 30 years since the landmark self-management book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” was published. It’s been called the most influential business book of the 20th century and the principles it espouses have become embedded in our culture. Seven Habits had a big impact on me personally, since the the first time I read it over 20 years ago as a high schooler. A 30th anniversary edition of the book is out with new insights from the late Stephen Covey’s children. And today, it’s my pleasure to speak to one of them, Stephen MR Covey. Stephen had a big role in the launch of the first edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, as well as his father’s company, FranklinCovey, and is himself the author of the book, “The Speed of Trust.”

Today on the show, Stephen and I discuss why The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has had such staying power and why it’s just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. We then walk through The 7 Habits, exploring how each is lived individually, as well as work together to create a flourishing life. If you’ve never read The 7 Habits, this episode is a great introduction, and if you read it before, this is a succinct refresher on a set of principles worth building your life around. After the show’s over, check out your show notes at Stephen joins me now via

Stephen MR Covey, welcome to the show.

Stephen Covey: Hey, Brett, it’s great to be with you, excited to be here.

Brett McKay: So, you are one of the sons of the late Stephen Covey and the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” other books. The 7 Habits is coming out with a 30th anniversary edition this May. And so, I brought you on the show in which you can talk about that. But before we do, let’s talk about your involvement with your dad’s work and the organization, FranklinCovey.

Stephen Covey: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I’ve been involved with the FranklinCovey organization and its predecessors. It was called at the time, Covey Leadership Center, and really almost from the very beginning, it was probably back in 1989 when I joined the company out of Harvard Business School and I was deciding what to do. I had an opportunity on Wall Street, investment banking, had an opportunity in real estate development, and then I had an opportunity to join up with my father, who had a small consulting leadership development company and I… But I knew my father had a great book coming out called, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” It had yet to come out, it was about to.

And so against the advice of everyone around me that said, “Go for Wall Street or go for this real estate development, those are reputable jobs,” I went with my father’s company, at that time, the Covey Leadership Center, now FranklinCovey, because I really knew what was in store for people, that The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was about to come out as a book, and that this book could have a profound impact on people. And so, I joined right at the very outset and helped my father build the organization and become really one of the largest leadership development companies in the world and using 7 Habits as the foundation for doing that.

Brett McKay: So as I said, there’s a 30th anniversary edition of The 7 Habits coming out this May. Why do you think this book has had such staying power after 30 years? It sold 40 million copies. Even today on Amazon, it’s usually on the top 10 on the Amazon charts, which is like the top 10 books sold. What’s going on? What do you think… Why has this book resonated with so many people for so long?

Stephen Covey: It’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it? [chuckle] After all this time, it’s still up there in the top 10 or in the top sellers, whether top 10 or whatever. But I think it’s because The 7 Habits is really built on enduring and timeless principles that apply everywhere and in all circumstances, and really, in all kinds of different times and places. And so, it’s based upon principles, not practices. It takes an inside-out approach, meaning that, we all look in the mirror and we start with ourselves versus an outside-in approach where you look at your circumstances or everybody else and blame. This is inside-out and you take a responsibility based upon principles. And then also, I think my father had a real gift of making this accessible to people, practical, tangible. Be proactive is one of the habits, and so, practical and tangible, begin with the end in mind. And so basic and so foundational, and yet, suddenly, he’s making it become more accessible. And that was really a gift my father had, is to take ideas that had always been out there. And these are not his ideas per se, he doesn’t claim to own the principles. No one owns the principles. They’re universal. They belong to everyone.

But my father had a gift of making the principles accessible, and actionable and practical, so people could implement them in their lives. Begin with the end in mind is habit two. And so, he taught people how to create a personal mission statement just like you would… A company might have an organizational mission statement. What about a personal mission statement? What about a family mission statement as a way of beginning with the end in mind? And really prioritizing and identifying the most important roles in your life, and then the goals that follow them in those, and really implementing this. And each of the seven habits was based upon a principle, but then made accessible through language and through applications that made this just so useful to people. So I think that’s the biggest reason, is that it’s based upon principles that are timeless, it’s an inside-out approach, meaning that everyone can start with themselves and work on this, and it’s accessible, it’s actionable, it’s practical and useful for people. And because of that, I say, rather than being 30 years old, I think The 7 Habits is 30 years young and going.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and that’s one of the things, when I first read The 7 Habits a long time ago, that focus on principles was what stood out to me. And then your father talked about this, he did this whole… At the beginning of the book, he does a whole review of the self-improvement literature going all the way back to the 19th century and then into the 20th century. And he said, the 20th century he had this… There’s a shift. In the 19th century, a lot of the self-improvement work was very character-based. It’s all about building up your character. But in the 20th century, there was a shift to what he calls a personality ethic. Can you talk about the difference between those two?

Stephen Covey: Absolutely. Yeah, this is what gave root to The 7 Habits, was this 200-year study of all the success literature, like you’ve mentioned, Brett. And he found in the first 150 years of this study, the focus was on character, and principles and things like fairness, and integrity, and courage, and interdependence, and trust and things like this. But then in the last 50 years he began to notice a discernible shift towards more things like techniques and skills-based things, not necessarily bad, but a shift away from character and more towards personality. And it’s not that personality is bad, it’s just that we don’t wanna separate the personality from the character roots. It’s almost like an iceberg. And the personality is the tip of the iceberg, it matters enormously, but the greater mass of the iceberg is the character. And so, the very first subtitle of The 7 Habits… The book came out, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” the first subtitle before the publishers had us change it to make it more memorable, the first subtitle was, “Restoring the Character Ethic.”

And it was exactly what you just described, Brett, it was trying to say, “Let’s get back to the foundational basics, the principles that are so vital to people everywhere, and of fairness, of integrity, of balance, of courage, of unity, of… ” These principles and… As opposed to just focusing on techniques, and practices and things that help you get ahead which again, aren’t necessarily bad, but if they’re severed from their character roots, could lose the foundation that is so critical for it. And that was the idea that spawned The 7 Habits, ’cause each of these seven habits are fundamentally based upon principles that are enduring as opposed to the fads, the techniques, the practices that would ebb and flow with changing times. And again, that’s why 7 Habits is so enduring, ’cause it’s based upon these principles.

Brett McKay: So let’s dig into The 7 Habits, so people can… For who haven’t read the book can get a taste of what they’ll find in the book, and also for people who have, it’d be a good refresher. So the first three habits are about winning private victories. It’s about starting with… It’s going from the inside-out, as you said. So the first habit is, “Being proactive.” What does that look like? What does that mean?

Stephen Covey: Yes, yeah. So let me just give… I’ll just take what you just mentioned, Brett, and go a little deeper on the context. The first three habits move a person from dependence to independence. And as you mentioned, my father called that, the private victory. You go from dependence to independence. The second three habits, habits four, five, and six move a person from independence to interdependence. So I’m independent, but now I try to say, “Can I work with others?” He calls that the public victory. And then the last habit sustains and renews all of them. So, the foundational habit, as you mentioned, is habit one, “Be proactive.” And the idea here is that each of us, we are responsible for our lives. And we can take responsibility for our lives, for our choices. We are influenced by circumstances, we’re influenced by environment, we’re influenced by genetics, there’s no question. But they, while they influence us, they don’t determine us.

The idea is that we can choose, we have the power, we’re agents, we can choose our response to circumstances. We don’t just have to be impulsive. In between what happens to us and our response to it, is a space. And in that space, we can choose our response based upon our values as opposed to just based upon circumstances. And so, when we choose based upon our values, that’s being proactive. When we just respond out of impulse, that’s being reactive. And it’s saying, “We can be proactive in our life. We can take responsibility for our life, and we can be resourceful, and take initiative and make things happen.” And so, this is really trying to give people a sense of personal responsibility, an opportunity to say, “I’m in charge of my life. I can create the life I want. Yes, I’m influenced by all these things around me but it’s in my circle of influence,” to use a metaphor he describes, “To take responsibility.” And that’s the idea. And the whole idea of the circle of influence is this, is that, there’s a lot of things that happen to us in life that we can’t control.

The weather, what’s happening right now with this global pandemic. We can’t control a lot of these things, but there are things that within the things that are influencing us, our circle of concern, if you will, all these things around us that concern us, inside that circle of concern is a smaller circle of influence. These are things that we can do something about. I can’t do anything about the weather but I can do something about my attitude towards the weather, how I feel about it, how I respond to it. I can carry my own weather with me. And when I focus on my circle of influence, instead of my circle of concern, I’m being proactive. And what will happen is, if I continue to focus on my circle of influence, my circle of influence will grow, and expand and enlarge. But if I focus on my circle of concern, of my boss’ weaknesses, my spouse’s faults, my kids… And focus on all their… Everything outside of me, what happens is my circle of influence tends to wither, and diminish and grow smaller, while my circle of concern expands.

And so by being proactive, focusing on what we can influence, then we grow that proactivity, we grow that influence and we begin to ripple out, and that’s the idea. So, be proactive means, you are responsible, you are in charge of yourself, of your life. Yes, we’re influenced by everything around us but that… Well, it influences us, it does not determine us. We are proactive, we’re agents to choose for ourself. And that’s the foundational habit because out of that comes all the other habits. Because once I’m responsible, now I can choose in a new and different way for everything else I’m doing in my life.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned that this is a principle, it’s timeless, it’s enduring, but within these principles, as you said earlier, your father provided very practical, actionable steps people can take to embody that principle. So what’s something that someone can start doing today to live this habit of being proactive?

Stephen Covey: Here is something you can do right away. Notice your language and any time you’re saying things like, “I have to,” or, “I’m required to do this. I have to do this. I have to do that,” you’re using a reactive language. We don’t have to do anything. We can choose to respond. Now, we might realize that, “Hey, if I don’t do something… ” Like, my daughter’s in school right now, an online school and she says, “Oh, I hate this. I have to be on these Zoom meetings every day and do all these things. I have to do it,” and I say, “You don’t have to.” She goes, “Yeah, I do. I have to. ‘Cause if I don’t, I’ll fall.” I said, “Well, do you have to? Or do you choose to?” She goes, “Well, if I don’t participate, I’ll fail.” Okay, great. So you choose to be on the call because you want to pass the class and you don’t have to. You could choose not to, and then you’d reap the natural consequences, which is, you’d fail the class, but it’s still a choice. You choose to be responsible, you choose to pass the class, but you don’t have to do anything.

So, just that very simple thing, “I have to.” Here’s another one, “He makes me so mad.” When someone bothers you, “He makes me so mad,” as if you have nothing to do about it. Is that a choice that you can choose to take offense, that you could choose to become angered? We don’t have to do anything. So, watch our language and use language of, “I choose to,” instead of, “I have to,” and take responsibility, and it’s something you can do immediately. And what we all realize is, we’re all pretty reactive. Myself included. And we’re not perfect on this, it’s very easy to fall into reactive stances. And you see it in your language, in the most basic things. But I just learned from my dad, “You never have to do anything. You choose to. You’re responsible.” And that very simple thing, you might think that’s a simple thing, but you start to become self-aware. I am responsible. I am a product of my choices not my circumstances, and I can choose to do everything and language is one little thing.

So, I say to each of us, watch our language and choose to, instead of have to, and you’ll be amazed at the self-awareness that gives you. The second thing I give is what I just mentioned earlier, “Focus on your circle of influence, not your circle of concern.” And so, when tough things happen, maybe at work. And rather than focusing on all of the problems with, let’s say your boss and how you can’t say, you can’t trust your boss. Well, what if you focus on your circle of influence, which is your self-trust, your credibility, your performance? Such that you gain more clout, more influence, because you’re doing so well that that compensates sometimes for even lesser relationship with another person. If you focus on your circle of influence, that circle of influence will expand, and you’ll become more effective, more powerful, versus focusing on the weaknesses of other people, focusing on things you can’t control. So that again, you become so aware and have it when it’s so much about self-awareness, so that we can choose our response based upon our values.

Brett McKay: Alright, so the next habit is, “Begin with the end in mind.” So what does that look like?

Stephen Covey: This is the habit of vision. If habit one is saying, “You are responsible, you are a programmer,” habit two is saying, “So write the program. What do you want… What’s your vision for yourself? What’s the vision for your life? Who are you? What are you all about? What are you trying to accomplish? What is your end in mind for yourself?” And so, the idea of… One way of thinking about this is to create a personal mission statement and maybe a way of doing a personal mission statement is to think it… An 80th birthday party where you’re turning 80, and you’ve got all your friends, and your family, and maybe neighbors, and maybe work associates there, and you have people that are gonna stand up and give a tribute. Maybe one from your family, and one from your neighborhood or community, one from your work, maybe if you belong to a church, one from your church or what have you. What would you like them to say, each of them, about you, as they celebrate you and your life on your 80th birthday?

What would you hope that they would say about you, the family member? What would you hope that they would say about you from work? What would you hope that they’d say about you in your community, or in your church, or in your whatever is important to you? And in a sense, that’s beginning with the end in mind, for yourself, for your life, and it helps you think about what matters to you. What do you value? What’s important? What is your mission? And so, you can come up with… You might put it in writing, in words, a personal mission statement. That’s just one application of how you would begin with the end in mind, you could create a personal mission statement. But there’s a whole lot of other ways that you can say, “What am I trying to achieve and accomplish?” Any time you take on a project, what’s the end in mind? You start a puzzle, think of the puzzle. Let’s say it’s a 1000 piece puzzle, and you dump it out and you got the 1000 pieces.

In a sense, begin with the end in mind is seeing the picture on the box of the puzzle of what you’re trying to put together, that picture, and how important in putting together a puzzle is the picture? It’s really important ’cause it gives you a sense of what you’re trying to do. What you’re trying to do with these puzzle pieces. You’re trying to create this picture. So, in a sense, begin with the end in mind is the picture of the puzzle that you’re assembling of your life, of who you are, of what you’re about, what you’re trying to do. And so, it’s really powerful, ’cause it’s the habit of vision. Hey, Brett, I’ll tell you an interesting fun story on this, when I was just a young kid.

Brett McKay: Sure.

Stephen Covey: ‘Cause we grew up in our home with… My father first taught The 7 Habits to us as kids, [chuckle] and there’s nine of us kids. So, we had a big family. And I remember one time, I was… I can’t remember, maybe 12 or 13 years old, and my dad took the whole family, I think maybe there were six or seven of us at the time, up to a big building. And we went to the top of the building, and on the very top on the roof, ’cause we were with an architect, got on the roof of the building, and then we looked down, and right next door to the building we were standing on, there was a big hole on the ground. And another building was about to be built in that hole. They were doing the foundation work. My dad had an architect with us and he was… He pulled out these blueprints, these blue pieces of paper, these blueprints, and he said, “This next building, right now you only see a hole, but that building has already been built mentally.” And then he pulled out the blueprints and he says, “Look, here’s the design of the building, here’s the foundation, here’s what it’s gonna look like.” And he says, “I’ve already built this building mentally. Now we’re gonna build it physically.”

But begin with the end in mind, in a sense, is the mental creation which precedes the physical creation. And I just remember that. So, it’s indelibly impressed in my mind as a young teenager that begin with the end in mind, and seeing that the hole in the ground, and seeing blueprints from this architect saying, “I’ve already built this building mentally and on paper. Now we’re gonna go do it physically.” Then we went back about a year and half later, or whenever it was done. And we went back and stood on the same building and looked out, and there was another building right next to it that we had seen the blueprint of a year and a half ago, and now there it is standing up. And I just remember saying, “I get it.” [chuckle] Begin with the end in mind. The mental creation precedes the physical one. So, we need to do the same for our lives is decide who we are, what we’re about, and then try to carry that out.

Brett McKay: Alright, so the final of the private victory habits, the third habit is, “Put first things first.” What does that look like?

Stephen Covey: That’s the carrying out of your plan, of your end in mind. And so, in a sense, in habit two, “Begin with the end in mind,” you are identifying, “What are the first things in my life? What are the most important things? What are the values? What are the things I care about, my priorities?” And habit three, “Put first things first,” is saying, “Okay, I’ve identified my priorities. Now, live by them.” If they’re the first things, then put them first, not second or last. No, put first things first. Carry out your plan. And so, you manage your time based upon not just what’s urgent and what’s in front of you, but what’s important, and what matters to you. Now, when something is both important and urgent, you’re gonna do that for sure, because you have to, it’s right upon you, it’s pressing, it’s urgent, and it’s important. But what we wanna avoid doing as we manage our time is avoid getting distracted by the things that are urgent, that are pressing, but aren’t necessarily important to us. And so, that could be excessive, just binge watching excessively. A little binge watching might be good for you, ’cause it might relax you, but you could go too far where it becomes excessive, and…

Or a pressing phone call and all the emails that just come in, and we can get distracted in our work and find ourselves just buried all day long doing emails or spending time on social media back and forth. You can get lost in this, and that’s kinda fun, and it might be pressing, and proximate and urgent, but oftentimes, it’s not very important. What really is critical to focus on are the things that are important. And they may or may not be urgent, but important since they’re most important. Those are the first things. So, we learn to organize and execute our life around our priorities, around the first things that we identified. So, habit three is the habit of productivity and of time management, of really life management, because we’ve… In habit two, “Begin with the end in mind,” we’ve said, “Here’s what I’m all about. Here’s what my life’s all about.” Now, habit three, I’m living it.

So, to use the computer metaphor, habit one, “You are not a program, you’re a programmer.” So habit two, “Write the program.” Habit three, “Execute the program, carry it out. What you’ve said is important to you, live it.” That’s where the rubber meets the road. Because if you say that you value your family, and then though in habit three, you find yourself never spending any time with your family, putting work always ahead of family, and even other interests ahead of family, then your… But you say the most important thing in your life is your family, you’re not putting your first thing first, it’s maybe second, or third or fourth. And so, this is just basically saying, “Be true to your values. Be true to the first things in your life.” Put them first, if you say they’re first, put them first, and it’s where the rubber meets the road.

When we teach this to kids, ’cause we actually… Seven Habits has been taught to CEOs of companies, has been taught to heads of state, and has been taught to school superintendent, school principals and to school children as young as kindergarten. And when we teach them to school kids, kindergarteners and the like, here’s what habit three says, rather than say, put first things first, here’s what we say, “Work first, then play.” And it’s basically saying, “Get your work done, then go play.” And it’s just a… Just a simple way of saying, “The course of least resistance is just to go play.” And yeah, of course you wanna play when you’re a kid, but do your work first, then we’ll go play. And that’s a way of saying, “Put first things first.”

Brett McKay: And so all these three habits, as you said earlier, they’re all designed to help people gain independence or become a mature person. And it’s something your father talked about, about this idea of maturity. ‘Cause once you mature, that allows you to move to these public victories, and able to work with other people. And so, that’s a good transition to the habit four, which is, “Think win-win.” And this is what you focused on with your writing with, The Speed of Trust. So, what does win-win look like?

Stephen Covey: Yep. So, you’re right. Right now the first three habits, “Make me independent. I’m a capable, responsible person.” I’m a real man in the Art of Manliness metaphor. And because I’m responsible and I’m capable, now, can I work well with others? Because most of life is interdependent. So the starting habit for that is habit four, “Think win-win,” and this is a mindset. That’s why my father used the word, “Think win-win.” It’s a mindset, it’s a way of thinking. And the way of thinking is mutual benefit, win-win. Yes, I wanna win, that’s the first win, but I also want you to win, too, that’s the second win. And so, it operates out of the idea that there is an abundance mentality, as opposed to, what you might call as a scarcity mentality. So a scarcity mentality is the idea that there’s only so much out there for people. There’s a pie and if someone gets a piece of the pie, that means there’s less for me, there’s less pie available, ’cause someone else has got a piece. Another person gets a piece, again, less pie for me ’cause the pie is fixed, it’s limited.

And that’s a scarcity mentality. At work, if someone gets the credit, then that’s less credit I’m getting, less praise I’m getting. If someone gets paid well, then that’s less pay for me, that’s the scarcity mentality. An abundance mentality is saying, “There’s plenty. There’s enough for everyone. We can grow the pie, we can expand the pie.” So if someone gets credit, “Great. That doesn’t take away anything from me. I’m happy for them and there could be enough for me, too. And we can grow this, we can expand it.” So the idea that, yes, you can win and I can win, too, we both can win, versus if there’s a winner, there’s gotta be a loser. And so, it’s a mindset of saying, “If we’re gonna work interdependently, collaboratively, the best way to do that is by having a mindset of thinking, win-win. I win, you win, we both win as a better way of working together. You get married, you want that to be win-win, it would be… Can you imagine coming up and saying, “Hey, who’s winning in your marriage?” [chuckle] That doesn’t make sense. That’s gonna end up being a lose-lose for both marriage partners, but you want your partner, your spouse to win as well as yourself.

If you’re in a business partnership, the best partnerships are those in which there’s mutual benefit to both parties, if you want that to be sustainable. If one party is winning, then the other party is losing, over time that’s not gonna work. And though either exit the partnership or go out of business, the party that’s losing, it’s just not sustainable. So, if the reality is interdependent, you gotta work together, win-win is the best and really most sustainable solution. So, habit four is the mindset of thinking win-win, that doesn’t mean you’ll always achieve it, because sometimes you may not. The circumstances might be such that you’re not able to achieve win-win. And it might be that you can’t get a win for you or maybe they can’t get a win for them, so you’re best off not working together. So my father called that, win-win or no deal. In other words, if we can’t find a win-win, we’re better off not doing the deal, not doing the relationship, not going into the partnership, if we’re not… If it’s not mutual benefit. You can’t always achieve it. My father was a realist on this, but you strive to achieve it. It’s your mindset to achieve it, because it’s a better approach to relationships and to life. And this now again, is when we move from independence to interdependence. So the best mindset is to think win-win, mutual benefit, it flows out of an abundance mentality.

Brett McKay: So you’re thinking win-win, part of the way you achieve win-win or try to achieve win-win is the fifth habit, which is, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” So, what do you think keeps people from understanding others? Why is this… To me, this seems like to be one of the hardest habits to do.

Stephen Covey: Brett, you’re right. It’s the single, hardest habit. In fact, we have a 7 Habits feedback tool, a 360 profile, a feedback instrument that you people… Your listeners have probably seen at work. You get a 360 feedback instrument around The 7 Habits and the lowest rated habit is habit five, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” It is difficult. And the reason it’s the lowest rated habit is because most of us struggle with this, because our instincts are just the opposite. We want to be understood. We wanna give our side. We wanna tell our story. We want to be heard. And we might think, “Hey, I’m right. So you need to hear this.” And so, our instincts are to lead out by saying, “Here’s what I think. Here’s my thought, here’s my belief, here’s my idea.” And my dad is not saying, “Don’t do that.” He’s just saying, “Don’t start out with that. Do that second.” Instead he’s saying, “Seek first to understand the other person, then you can try to be understood.” In other words, there is a time and a place to say, “Here’s my viewpoint on this. Here’s how I see this.”

But his point is, “You will be more effective at expressing your viewpoint, at having influence with other people when you first take the time, and the energy, the effort to try to understand the other person.” Because when the other person feels understood, they become far more open to really listening to you and being influenced by you. When they don’t feel understood by you, and when they feel like you didn’t really listen to them, then they’re fighting for the equivalent of psychological air. If we were to suck the air out of the rooms that we’re in right now as we’re doing this recording, Brett, if there were no air available to either me or you, neither of us would care about what the other were saying, we’d be just… We’d be fighting for air to stay alive. But now that we have air, we’re not even thinking about it.

So an unsatisfied need doesn’t… Excuse me, a satisfied need doesn’t motivate. When we have air, we don’t think about it. But if we didn’t have air, we’d be fighting for it. And the same thing is true of understanding another person. What oxygen is to the body, understanding is to the soul of the person. People wanna feel understood. It’s a gift to understand another person that you give to them. So, when you go into a relationship and say, “Hey, let me try to understand you first. Let me listen to you.” And it’s the deepest form of listening, ’cause it’s empathic listening. Most people listen, not with the intent to truly understand another person. Rather, most people are listening with the intent to reply to the person, to respond. So, they might be respectful, waiting their turn, but they’re just formulating their reply, and just waiting for them to finish. “Okay. Yeah, yeah. You got out what you wanted to say? Okay, yeah. Well, here’s how I see it.”

And the person that talked first doesn’t really feel like you heard them, like you… They don’t feel understood. But if you take the time to say, “Hey, let me try to understand you first. Let me really listen to the point where you feel understood by me. So I’m gonna reflect back what I hear you saying. I reflect the feeling behind it, and I’ll try to capture the content and see if I… Help me to make sure I’m understanding you, and if I’m not, tell me what I’m missing, so I… ‘Cause my goal is to understand.” And see, that takes courage to do that, ’cause you’re a little bit vulnerable. That’s why the first three habits, the private victory precedes this. That gives you the strength, the courage, the independence to say, “I’m enough of a man,” to use the metaphor of this show, “That I can choose to listen to and truly understand another person, even if I see the world differently than that person, even if I disagree with them.” ‘Cause understanding does not necessarily mean agreement. You might not agree. In fact, you might completely disagree.

All that understanding is saying is, “I’m trying to understand you to your satisfaction, where you feel heard, listened to and truly understood. And again, I may agree, I may disagree.” The reason it’s hard, it takes courage, it takes true independence, we have to be a little bit vulnerable. That’s why we have to have strength to do this, because we’re a little bit vulnerable. That’s why the private victory comes first. But also, it goes against our instincts to try to wanna be heard, to tell what we think. And again, my father’s saying, “Don’t deny that. You just don’t lead with that. Have that be second not first. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When you go in that sequence, when the person feels understood by you, they are so much more open to your influence, and they’ll listen to you better. You’ll have more… When you say, “Hell, here’s how I view it,” and they feel like you paid the price to understand them, they listen far more carefully to you, they’re more influenced by you.

And I have seen this happen in personal relationships. If I do this well with my wife, if I really listen to where she feels I understand her, oh, she becomes far more open to what I think. When I don’t do this, when I just pretend to listen, or just wait my turn, I don’t have anywhere near the influence. [chuckle] So it’s in personal relationships, it’s fairly in business. When there’s understanding, you can come up with all kinds of solutions. When people don’t understand each other, they have a hard time really achieving solutions. So you are right when you said, “Brett, think win-win,” habit four. The way to get to win-win is habit five, by understanding first the interest of the other person to their satisfaction, then you sharing your interest to your satisfaction, and that sets you up for habit six.

Brett McKay: Which is…

Stephen Covey: Which is,”Synergize.”

Brett McKay: Which is, “Synergize.” Yeah. So yeah, I think that synergize, this is a… It’s become a buzzword in corporate culture. It’s been such a buzzword it’s been parity. But I think that parity is… There’s a misunderstanding of what your father meant by synergizing. What does your father mean by synergizing the seven habits?

Stephen Covey: Here’s what he means by synergize. Habit six, “Synergize.” It’s really those three habits working together. “Think win-win,” habit four. Habit five, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That’s how you understand each other’s differences. Habit six, “Synergize,” means you’re trying to create something that is bigger than the sum of its parts, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. That means this, one plus one equals three, or five, or 10 or more. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Compromise is where one plus one equals 1 1/2. I gave, you gave. We didn’t create something better, we had to just compromise. So one plus one equals 1 1/2. Sometimes, compromise is all you can do. It might just be the reality. There’s really low trust and the best you can do like so often in government, compromise is the best they can do. The idea of synergize is saying, “What if we got creative? What if our mindset was think win-win, we want… I wanna win. I want you to win, too, and vice versa. What if we both sought first to understand each other then to be understood? And we both did that and we both felt like we mutually understood each other, then what are the possibilities in habit six of synergizing where we can come up with ideas and solutions that might be better than what either one of us might come up with on our own?

And this is the whole idea that our differences can become our strengths. And we come up with solutions that we never could have come up with if just independently that we could do together creatively. And so, that’s the wisdom of teams. It’s the idea of really saying, “Look, let’s create, let’s be innovative, let’s be creative.” You see the world differently than I do, great. Let’s value those differences in habits four and habits five, “Think win-win. Seek first to understand, then to be understood to create something better.” Habit six, “To synergize.” You have one plus one equaling three or more. But you’re right, Brett. When my father was first using this word, it was a new word and a fresh word, and… Over time, because it became a corporate word of synergies in mergers and the like, that often was seen, it got a negative connotation attached to it in some ways. But if the idea could be, “This is innovation, this is creativity, this is coming up with new ideas and possibilities that are better that we could come up with together, that would be harder to come up with independently and by yourself only.”

Brett McKay: Alright. So the final habit is, “Sharpen the saw.” And this seems to be a capstone habit. It’s supposed to help with all the habits. So what does your father mean by sharpen the saw?

Stephen Covey: He’s saying, “Look, if you were sawing down a tree with a big saw and you could try to work harder, try to saw faster, that might help. But maybe the smartest thing you could do would be to stop and take time to sharpen that saw. Because if the saw is more sharp, you will saw down that tree a lot faster.” And that’s the idea. Never be too busy sawing to take time to sharpen the saw. And so sharpen the saw becomes a metaphor for saying, “Renew yourself. Invest in yourself. Renew your body, your heart, your mind, your spirit. Renew yourself physically so that you’re exercising and you’re taking care of yourself physically, your body. Renew your heart, your relationships, love and relationships, and emotional renewal. Renew yourself mentally so you’re learning and improving, getting better, and you’re keeping your mind alert, clear, active, engaged. Renew yourself spiritually.”

The idea here is not necessarily religion, but rather meaning, and purpose, and contribution and creating value. And who are you? What are you all about? That’s the spiritual dimension, the need for meaning and purpose. And so you’re trying to reinvest in yourself, and to renew yourself and to sharpen the saw in those four dimensions: Your body, your heart, your mind, your spirit. And the very process of doing that makes you a sharper saw so you’re able to perform better, to do better. So rather than burning yourself out… A lot of us suffer from burnout in our lives and because we’re just so busy, and we’re just so wrung out by so many things and it’s like the pounding surf, just one thing after another. And I’ve been there, too. And the point is, never be so busy sawing to take time to sharpen the saw. If you take time to renew yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, you’ll be more productive, you’ll be more effective, and you’ll be energized rather than burned out, and you’ll have more capacity to do everything else better.

So it renews your ability to practice the other six habits and to go back trying to work well with other people, starting with yourself, being independent and then becoming effectively interdependent working well with others. And then you renew your abilities, your capacity to do all of that. So that’s the capstone. Exactly what you said, Brett, of the seventh habit, “Sharpen the saw,” helps you do the other six on an ongoing basis.

Brett McKay: Well, Stephen, this has been a fantastic conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the 30th anniversary edition of The 7 Habits and more about the work at FranklinCovey?

Stephen Covey: Absolutely. So, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” the 30th anniversary is coming out in May, 2020. And you can go to Amazon or any bookstore, it will be everywhere on that. And the great thing about this 30th edition, by the way, is that there are some value-added pieces, even for the people that have already read The 7 Habits. If you liked The 7 Habits before, you’ll even like it more now. Let me tell you why. Because first, The 7 Habits is in there exactly as it was before. Not one word of my father has been changed. But what we have done is we’ve added at the end of each chapter, additional, fresh insights to those different habits that my brother Sean wrote. And my brother Sean is the run that took my father’s work and adapted it to teens, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens and 7 Habits of Happy Kids. And he’s also done a lot of work with organizations and with his work on The 4 Disciplines of Execution along with Chris McChesney and Jim Huling. And so, he has a real insight. And it’s gonna bring fresh insights. Also, interviews with my father and behind the scenes insight from my father that my brother’s gonna add to this.

So it’s really additive to The 7 Habits for those that have already read it. For those that haven’t, I think you’ll find this is such a useful practical framework of being effective in your life independently and then interdependently as a person, as a man, in the art of manliness and to help you succeed. So you can go to the bookstore. You can go online. You can go to the FranklinCovey website, so just And you’ll learn about The 7 Habits, and training programs, and all kinds of different tools to help you to learn more, go deeper into 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which really is 30 years young. I think it remains… Maybe, Brett, if I could be bold to say this, just like… Jim Collins, the author of, Good to Great, called it an operating system of human effectiveness, of helping people just understand how to be effective first, personally, and second, with other people because it’s based upon your character, these foundational principles that are so actionable. My father has a gift of making it actionable and memorable to people. So hope our listeners will find great value from this newly released 30th anniversary addition.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Stephen MR Covey, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Stephen Covey: Hey, thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking to you, Brett, and appreciate the great work that you do.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Stephen MR Covey. He is one of the sons of the late Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is out now with a 30th anniversary edition with new insights from the kids of Stephen Covey. It’s available on You can find out more information about The 7 Habits at Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check out our website at where you can find our podcast archive as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you could think of. In fact, we’re gonna do a whole series about The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Go check that out. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code MANLINESS for a free month trial on Stitcher Premium. Once you’re signed up, download the app, Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you all to listen to the AOM Podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.


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