Review of Stephen Coveys ‘masterpiece’, which is ‘simple but incredibly effective, [and] a great guide for any aspiring leader!’

I bought this book along with Zero to One and Everything is F*cked last september in Berlin. It has been close to the top of my to-read list for some time now, mainly because Habits are one of the ‘low hanging fruits’ in my life that I have barely touched yet. While I would not exactly agree that these are habits (certainly not by the definition from The Power of Habit), the book has helped me considerably. Here is what I learned from it.


This will contain mostly bullet points taken from my notes. You should be fine with reading just the ‘TLDR’ for each section, or skipping them altogether if you know roughly what the book is about. The review starts here.

Part One: Paradigms and Principles


TLDR; There is no shortcut to success - you cannot fake piano skills. Facts exist, but sometimes we have different perceptions and disagree in interpretation. Self-Improvement is always changing oneself first.

  • Most of recent ‘self-help’ is superficially focusing on behavior and attitude, but not solving the deep problems. This book is different.
  • We tend to assume the world is the way we see it. But it is based on our perception which is based on our paradigms - facts exist, but we sometimes disagree in their interpretation.
  • For some things there is no short path: faking piano skills will not get you there. Same with psychological, emotional and character-based maturity.
  • Self-improvement is always changing oneself first.
  • For habits to work, we require the knowledge, skill and desire to do them, or we won’t do them.
  • Maturity levels: dependence < independence < interdependence
  • Important: relation of Production to Production Capacity. focusing on only one side will inevitably damage the other and ultimately both

Part Two: Private Victory

Habit 1: Be Proactive

TLDR; Nothing good will happen to you if you don’t initiate it. When you start initiating things, you become vastly more effective. Reduce your circle of concern and work on your circle of influence.

  • When we act, we can decide not just to re-act to something else. We can choose our response. Responsibility is the ability to respond, not just react to to external stimuli with a value-based choice or response
  • The difference in effectiveness (proactive vs not proactive) is not 25% or 50%, but more like 5000-plus percent, particularly when you are smart, aware, or sensitive to others
  • It takes initiative to take responsibility and start doing most useful things
  • Proactive people increase their circle of influence and reduce their circle of concern, for their difference to be as small as possible
  • Proactive people are successful, independent of their exact situation
  • Proactive is not pushy, aggressive or insensitive, Gandhi is a good example
  • Focus on what you are instead of what you’d like to have (If I just had …)
  • Past mistakes are part of our circle of concern, but don’t let them define future attempts
  • Worst mistakes: covering up smaller ones. They will poison us until we own up to them
  • Proactivity includes taking full ownership of the situation

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

TLDR; It is much more likely that you will achieve something when you aim for it. Being guided by values and principles can help you tremendously (reducing search space) and provide a much more stable mentality.

  • What impression do you want other people to have at your funeral, in 3 years from now? Especially your Family, Friends, Workplace, and your Community? Your answer to this is based on your values and principles.
  • Leadership is more important than management
  • It is possible to change (re-script) behavior
  • Creating a personal mission statement is considered useful
  • Center can have a number of forms, common ones include being dependent on:
    • spouse
    • family
    • money
    • work
    • possession
    • pleasure
    • friend/enemy
    • church
    • self
  • Ideally a fluctuating combination, others are not stable
  • The main center needs to be principle-based however: this provides high amounts of security, wisdom, guidance and power
  • Paradigms are like pairs of glasses to ‘see’ through
  • A decent center is important as it guides everyday decisions
  • A principle-based center has several benefits
  • Our values and principles surface when thinking about dying soon
  • When considering what matters most, we usually consider larger time frames than today or tomorrow (the near future)
  • Priming the RAS can be massively powerful
  • Identify goals for each of your roles - focus on results, not activities
  • Reward and incentive structures need to be aligned with core values (in organizations)

Habit 3: Put First Things First

TLDR; Frequent Prioritizing helps you be much more effective. Identify roles and key activities and schedule them. Focus on results, not activities. Having something important helps to say ‘no’ to most other things.

  • What one thing, when done regular, would make a positive difference in your personal life? And what in your business/professional?
  • day-in day-out actualization exercise to becoming principle centered
  • the challenge is not to manage time, but to manage ourselves
  • we mostly react, instead of sufficiently prioritizing to do the important things.
  • To be effective, you need to say ‘no’ to urgent things sometimes.
  • Have something important to say ‘yes’ to, to have the strength to say ‘no’ to most other things.
  • Each week, schedule important results you want to achieve. Adapt each morning to changed conditions.
  • You need to adapt to changed circumstances - which poses no problem as long as you stay true to your principles
  • Fourth generation management tools:
    • subordinating your schedule to your deepest values
    • identifies roles and key activities
    • gives greater context through weekly organizing with daily adaptation
  • Stewardship delegation clears up-front mutual understanding and commitment regarding:
    • Desired results: focus on what not how, visualize desired results and quality statements
    • Guidelines: as few as possible, but should include failure paths and formidable restrictions
    • Resources: human, financial, technological or organizational resources that can be acquired
    • Accountability: setup standards of performance and evaluation metrics and reporting times
    • Consequences: specification of both good and bad as results of evaluation

Part Three: Public Victory

TLDR; An emotional bank account describes the trust someone has in you. It gets withdrawn constantly by unmet expectations. Many problems stem from relationship difficulties, and are not actually technical in nature.

  • Emotional bank account metaphor describing amount of trust in a relationship
  • It gets withdrawn constantly by unmet expectations
  • When overdrawn: walking in a minefield, tension everywhere
  • Mayor deposits:
    • understanding the individual (an action might turn into a withdrawal otherwise)
    • attending the little things
    • keeping commitments
    • clarifying expectations
    • showing personal integrity
    • apologizing sincerely for withdrawals
  • Many problems in organizations stem from relationship difficulties at the very top
  • Every problem is an opportunity to build emotional bank accounts

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

TLDR; Aiming for everyone to profit from a deal is the only way to avoid malicious compliance and one-sided resentment. Solve their problem too, not just yours.

  • Don’t expect cooperation if your incentive structure is for competition
  • There are many different paradigms of human interaction, the best depends on the situation
  • However, in most situations everything that is not win/win is not viable
  • Usually best: win/win or no deal. dependence creates one-sided resentment malicious compliance will only hurt both parties
  • Always helpful: abundance mentality with deep sense of worth and security (there is enough for everyone)
  • Win/Win training: clear objectives and criteria, as well as a path to them
  • “Managers Letter”: acting person writes one page summary after a thorough discussions with expectations, guidelines and resources, and indicates when the next performance review takes place
  • Basic consequences: financial, psychic, opportunity, responsibility
  • Align reward system with goals and values in your mission statement
  • Win/Win: makes person accountable to perform and evaluate results and provides consequences as natural result of performance.
  • Arrive at Win/Win by separating the person from the problem and focus on interests not positions, insist on external objective agreed criteria
    • see the problem from the other perspective
    • identify key issues and concerns
    • determine what results would constitute fully acceptable solutions
    • identify possible actions

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

TLDR; We communicate most of our awake time, and received little explicit training on how to communicate with other humans. Effective communication helps ourselves to become much more efficient, understanding others helps to work with them better.

  • Often, we don’t listen to other people and want to provide a quick fix
  • We communicate most of our waking hours, and yet we received no specific training to understand other human beings
  • Effective interaction requires understanding
  • It is easier to trust actions and integrity than words
  • While we want to be understood, we don’t attempt to understand others
  • Empathetic listening: rephrase content and reflect feelings
  • Gives people psychological air to open up and accept help
  • We tend to have different and incompatible perception - none of them are wrong, but it makes communication harder
  • Effective presentations take effort and time, but are usually worth it.
  • When interacting, there is a lot of things you can’t control - but you can always seek first to understand.
  • One-on-one sessions help tremendously
  • Seek first to understand and it will open doors for synergy

Habit 6: Synergize

TLDR; Synergistic effects can only occur when you trust each other and communicate well. Only then is it possible to solve both of your problems. While synergy is close to chaos, it can provide the most effective solutions.

  • Synergy: most catalytic, most empowering, most unifying, most exciting
    • they are also the most terrifying, because it’s unclear where it will lead
  • Value differences, build on strength and compensate for weaknesses
  • required: high tolerance for ambiguity and security to not find creative enterprises unnerving and unpleasant (or high need for structure, certainty or predictability)
  • The best classes are on the verge of chaos, with enough trust and openness to enable synergy to unfold
  • Chaos is a killed spirit of creativity and enterprise
  • Have a mission statement, make clear what it is about (and not)
  • Requires high emotional bank accounts to emerge
  • It might seem everything but ‘efficient’, but it’s the only way to get transformational and much more effective and better solutions for everyone
  • There are always third alternatives
  • You need to try to understand the other party’s problem as well, before you can solve both (their and your) problems
  • Listen to both the factual and the emotional when communicating
  • Instead of increasing driving forces, focus on reducing restraining forces first
  • Something synergistic can happen with your enemies as well, if you both try to listen and understand earnestly

Part Four: Renewal

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

TLDR; Improvement and renewal should happen regular and in more than one dimension in a balanced way to be a sustainable upward spiral. Money is important as well, but should never be your focus.

  • Don’t just be busy sawing all the time - you need to sharpen the saw now and then.
  • Four dimensions of renewal:
    • physical: exercise, nutrition, stress management
    • spiritual: Value clarification and commitment, study & meditation
    • mental: reading, visualizing, planning, writing
    • social/emotional: service, empathy, synergy, intrinsic security
  • Most use these dimensions, though they may be called differently
  • Physical: doesn’t really matter what, but it is important to do something
  • Spiritual: living an active commitment to your value center
  • Mental: mostly through formal education, but always continue learning
  • Social/emotional: serving others, living service creates ample purpose
  • Needs to be balanced - and the same is true for organizations
  • Earning money is necessary, but a bigger purpose is required to sustain it
  • Necessary for balanced renewal
  • Continuous improvement is an upward spiral


It’s awesome to see people discussing using the newly introduced special keywords:

  • “Was that a deposit or withdrawal?”
  • “Is that reactive or proactive?”
  • “Is that in your circle of influence?”
  • “Is that synergistic or a compromise?”
  • “Is it win/win or win/lose or lose/win?”
  • “Is it putting first things first?”
  • “Is that beginning with the means in mind or the end in mind?”


I really liked the book. It gives a new sense of clarity to the muddy waters of everyday life. While I was living of the habits already (to a degree), the newfound clarity alone is more than worth having read the book. I managed to create the first iteration of my personal mission statement. It just didn’t quite fit, but I found one that resonates with me much deeper recently.

Main Takeaways

It helped me understand a lot of things deeper, gaining clarity. Applying even just parts of these principles has had a tremendous increase in effectiveness for me and my interactions with others.

My biggest takeaways include:

  • Just how much more effective proactivity is
  • Your identity should be centered around sound principles
  • We tend to differ in the interpretation of facts
  • We don’t need more time, we need more effective prioritizing first
  • Emotional bank accounts, circle of concern/influence
  • Everything that’s not a win for both sides will create resentment eventually
  • Communication is a truly important skill to have and train

The difference in effectiveness between proactive people and non-proactive people is just incredible. I’ll prefer proactivity if I want to get something done from now on.

An identity built around principles can help to keep your ego in check. These principles then are indeed important as they guide our everyday decisions.

We might have differing interpretations of even the same facts - we see the world how we are. Incompatible perceptions make communication harder but not impossible

We all have enough time, it’s just that we suck at prioritizing sometimes. And we can be bad at it without noticing. I got a newfound sensitivity for this.

I did not realize it before, but our single most done activity is communicating, be it via text or in person. Me writing this and you reading it is also communication. And yet we have received no special training to communicate with humans - which are notoriously difficult to communicate with.


I had high expectations based on the reviews from other people. So I made sure to lower them, since reviews tend to exaggerate. Turns out: they weren’t. Not at all. My hopes have been more than fulfilled, even.

The only thing that could be improved on: he recommends the franklincovey Mission Statement Builder - and while it has some useful prompts, it left me feeling like it was incomplete, as if something was still missing. Maybe that was just me though, so tell me if your experience differs.

Overall the book is exceptionally well written. The examples were clear and concise. It was easy to understand even profound concepts based on stories - take the ‘chicken laying golden eggs’-example, I genuinely understood what he meant by P/PC balance from that point forward.

I can only recommend you to read this book, if you haven’t already.

Favorite Quotes

Foreword and Introduction:

How do you build Leaders? You first build character.

Leadership is communicating other’s worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.

Be Proactive:

When relationships are strained and the air charged with emotion, an attempt to teach is often perceived as a form of judgment and rejection. But take the child alone, quietly, when the relationship is good and to discuss the teaching or the value seems to have a much greater impact.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. - Aristotle

Many People wait for something to happen or someone to take care of them. But people who end up with the good jobs are the proactive ones who are solutions to problems, not problems themselves, who seize the initiative to do whatever is necessary, consistent with correct principles, to get the job done.

Begin with the End in Mind:

In the words of both Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis, “Management is to do things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

No management success can compensate for failure in leadership. But leadership is hard because we’re often caught in a management paradigm.

Mission statements are […] vital to successful organizations.

Without involvement, there is no commitment.

Put First Things First:

To paraphrase Peter Drucker, effective people are not problem-minded; they’re opportunity-minded. They feed opportunities and starve problems. They think preventively.

Again, you simply can’t think efficiency with people. You think effectiveness with people and efficiency with things.

Effective delegation is perhaps the best indicator of effective management simply because it is so basic to both personal and organizational growth.

Part Three:

You can’t talk yourself out of problems you behave yourself into

Building and repairing relationships takes time.

Think Win/Win:

I am always amazed at the results that happen, both to individuals and to organizations, when responsible, proactive, self-directing individuals are turned loose on a task.

Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood:

You don’- have much confidence in someone who doesn’t diagnose before he or she prescribes. But how often do we diagnose before we prescribe in communication? […] We have such a tendency to 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.

Communication is the most important skill in our life. We spend most of our waking hours communicating. […] What training or education have you had [..] to listen so that you really, deeply understand another human being from that individuals frame of reference?


Once people have experienced real synergy, they are never quite the same again.

Far eastern philosophy: “We seek not to imitate the masters, rather we seek what they sought.”

all people see the world not as it is, but as they are.

Sharpen the Saw:

We don’t have time not to [exercise].

We can’t live without eating, but we don’t live to eat.