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Reflections on 'Seven Habits of Highly Effective People'

By Bryan Gilbert.

While working for the Billy Graham Global Mission, I came to admire the character, leadership and outstanding qualities of Bob Williams, the International Director. When I asked him for guidance regarding suitable books on leadership, he replied without hesitation, , Seven Habits of Highly Effective People' , by Stephen Covey. So it was that during the long flights aroundAfrica, this book became my companionand personal challenge second only to the Bible.

The contents related so closely to Biblical teaching. I found that prayer, meditation, reading the scriptures, personal faith, as well as purity and integrity of character, were all underlined as important. It came therefore as a shock to discover that Stephen Covey is a Mormon! Could I have missed something subtle, some brainwashing technique, some doctrinal error that had slipped by? After reading the book again and again, listening to his tapes and working with numerous other Christian leaders involved in teaching this material, I have come to the conclusion that this teaching can deeply affect, enrich and strengthen our Christian faith and ministry. Nowhere do Mormon doctrines appear, unless living a highly effective life for Godis considered the monopoly of the Mormons!

Background to the Seven Habits

Seven may be a special number, but it just so happens that the seven habits were gathered together gradually from the time Stephen Covey began studying the, success' literature of America. He was preparing for a Bicentenary address in 1976 and his studies covered hundreds of books and articles. He discovered that the first 150 years of this two hundred year period had focused on the Character Ethic as the foundation for success. Attributes such as integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice and love were evident. In more recent years the emphasis had moved to the Personality Ethic. Things like public image, mental attitudes, skills and techniques were being used to achieve a quick fix. 'The Seven Habits' was Covey's attempt to redress the balance and bring us back to principle centred leadership.

A habit is made up of a combination of skill, knowledge and attitude or desire. Old habits can be unlearned if the desire to do so is present, and new habits can be learned if the combination is right. It takes time, but it works. The process takes us from being unconsciously incompetent, through the stage of being consciously incompetent, to being consciously competent and finally a new habit is born which is unconscious competence.

To illustrate effectiveness, Covey refers to Aesop's fable of the goose that laid the golden egg. The farmer killed the goose to get a quick return and so deprived himself of both his asset and his ongoing future success. He was not very effective! So often, in our personal lives and local congregations, short term success and quick results are achieved at the expense of long term on-going effectiveness. For example, we may financially bleed members for the immediate, without giving the teaching and encouragement that sustains the long term habit of tithing. We ourselves as leaders may soon use up the lessons learned through college studies without refilling the recesses of our mind with the habit of ongoing learning. To be truly effective is tolive a balanced life.

Sharpening the Saw

Habit Seven entitled 'Sharpening the Saw' emphasises self renewal. When busy leaders get too busy, they tend to neglect to sharpen the saw. Covey draws attention to the importance of renewing the mind, the body, the emotions and the spirit. Bearing in mind that this material is taught to leaders in industry and commerce who have no outward personal faith, one can understand why many attending the programmes are somewhat suspicious of its 'evangelical ' emphasis. That is the way they describe it!

As Christian leaders, you face stressful situations daily. You try to juggle the demands of human needs that cry out with urgency and importance with the equally demanding role of being a partner and parent, a son or daughter. Covey writes, 'We've been designed mentally, physically, and emotionally to handle stress. Someone once defined the brain as an instrument for transforming pain and stress into ever higher levels of order and organisation. Their point was that the circumstances we call stressful can actually make us stronger. Not only have we been equipped to handle stress, but we can actually turn it to our benefit by transforming it into inner strength. ' Many have proved that the application of the seven habits is a powerful tool in turning stress into strength.

Emotional Bank Account

Developing the emotional and relationship side of our effective life is through teaching 'The Emotional Bank Account'. Such an account requires continual small deposits to maintain its balance. Deposits are made in the form of kindness, patience, service, courtesy, respect and honesty to other people. Withdrawals are made through bad communications, overreacting, selfishness, breaking expectation sand promises, not giving apologies, gossiping and general selfishness. (Those of you who remember Operation Agape, the first stage in One Step Forward, will notice close parallels.)

Developing a good ' Emotional Bank Account' with one another as Christians leads to a high level of trust within the leadership and congregation. It has a profound effect upon one's own family relationships and is worth thinking about for that reason alone. It is hardly necessary to draw out the many scriptures that support this kind of servant humility and love. Passages such as John 13,1 Cor. 13, Phil. 2 and Col. 3 come immediately to mind.

The first three habits form what Covey calls 'the private victory' which then leads into the 'public victory' of habits four, five and six. The Christian parallel to this concept is not difficult to see. We cannot be effective for the Lord in our 'public ministry' if we cannot first achieve the 'private victory'.

Habit One -Be Proactive

The term 'being proactive' is often wrongly used in place of someone showing initiative. To be proactive is the opposite of being 'reactive'. Being proactive means taking responsibility for our attitudes and actions. We all have 'response-ability'. Proactive people develop the ability to choose their responses rather than simply reacting on the basis of their moods and the conditions. The' deterministic behaviour' expounded by psychologists Pavlov, Freud, Skinner and others has been challenged. They taught that a stimulus gives way to an immediate response. However, their view that what we do is determined by genetic, environmental or psychic influences has been overturned.

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who was brutally tortured in the last war, came to the following conclusion: `We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They must have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from man, but one thing, the last of the human freedoms: to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way' (`Man's Search for Meaning'). Frankl showed that we have the ability to put a gap between the stimulus and response if we so decide. As human beings we have four unique God given endowments to fill the gap between stimulus and response.We have our conscience, creative imagination, self awareness and independent will. These endowments need strengthening, feeding and encouraging by systematic biblical teaching. This in turn will develop the use of the armour outlined in Eph. 6. Sadly, some Christians do not have the desire to put on the armour. The four human endowments mentioned above all work towards making more use of the armour God provides.

It is so easy for Christians to apportion blame for our actions and make feeble excuses. The scriptures clearly teach that, when tempted, we always have a choice, a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). The challenge facing Christian leaders is to learn to `walk the talk' and teach others to develop this proactive muscle. It needs to become second nature, so that Christians are in the habit of doing God's will.

For a start we can begin to use proactive language. Get rid of expressions such as: `There's nothing I can do', `That's just the way I am', `They won't allow that', `It won't work', `I have to do it', `I must', `If only...'. Choose to be proactive. Realize that you control your feelings. You can look at other possibilities and be creative. You have freedom to choose your responses. Learn to say `I prefer' and `I will', rather than the negative reactive phrases so commonly used. Another help in becoming more proactive as a leader is to say to yourself when faced with a emotive stimulus: `Stop -Think (is there an alternative?) -Act (what can I do differently?)'

Habit Two - Begin with the End in Mind

To have a `management' attitude in church leadership involves doing things right, being efficient. To have a `leadership' attitude involves doing the right thing and so being effective. Both have their place. Habit Two involves personal leadership. It helps you to begin each day with a clear understanding of your desired direction and destination.

Jesus had a clear mission statement, part of which he mentions in Luke 4 when he reads from the prophet Isaiah. In John's gospel, Jesus often referred to the fact that he was `sent' for a specific purpose. Effective leaders will seek to be clear about their God given mission. There is great value for you as a leader in writing down your own mission or purpose statement. It will help you to clarify your roles and goals in life, your values and the principles by which you operate for God. It takes the `drift' out of your personal Christian life. Such a statement is not set in concrete, but open for the Spirit's continued guidance and change. It is revisited regularly and reviewed constantly.

Let us consider a helpful example from family life. Your son may be going through the difficult transitional teenage years. One of your roles is that of a parent. In your mission statement you remind yourself of this God-given role and set out some basic clear achievable goals to help build up the Emotional Bank Account with your son. Revisiting the statement regularly reminds you of both the responsibility and the goals set. How effective have you been? What changes need to be made? What are the important issues in your life? A Mission Statement constantly reminds us of those things in family and calling which are important. It helps to get life into perspective.

Such a statement can also be written for your church. For example, a church I'm working with in America has the following statement. `The purpose of Olivet is to glorify God as we exalt Christ in worship, encourage loving fellowship, equip and nurture believers, evangelize and serve at home and abroad by the enabling of the Holy Spirit with the Bible as our standard.'

Habit Three - Putting First Things First

`Putting First Things First' is the habit of personal management. It involves organising and managing time and events according to personal priorities identified in Habit One. Covey uses a time matrix model that divides our time into those things which are (I) urgent and important, (2) not urgent but important, (3) urgent and not important and finally (4) neither urgent nor important.

Many Christian leaders spend their time in Quadrant One where they constantly fight the fires and are just able to cope with the urgent and important demands upon their time. The secret of 'effectiveness' is deliberately moving increasingly into Quadrant Two where things are important, but not so urgent. This is where planning, preparation, study, relationships, prevention, true recreation and really productive meetings take place. We are not talking only about sermon preparation for the next Sunday, but about carving out time to plan a forthcoming series of Bible teaching, leadership training, checking God's direction for yourself and the church. Time to 'Sharpen the Saw'.

To create more time to spend in quadrant two, Covey teaches the basics of 'Stewardship Delegation' as a way of sharing the leader's load. This approach is not by dumping jobs on others without guidance, help and coaching, but rather through the personal development of their gifts and abilities. It involves using the following five points when sharing a responsibility. Agree with the other person what are the:






This simple outline has proved invaluable when making a job clear and sharing responsibility with others. A mnemonic to help remember the five points could be

Director General of the Royal Automobile Club!

Habit Four -Think Win-Win

Win-win is the habit of interpersonal leadership. Making use of the same five point soutlined above in Stewardship Delegation, it is possible to create a powerful and effective third alternative where all parties are happy. Covey points out that effectiveness is largely achieved through the co-operative efforts of two or more people. To think win-win is the attitude of seeking mutual benefit. It begins with a commitment to explore all options until a mutually satisfactory solution is reached, or to agree not to proceed. Covey calls this agreeing to disagree agreeably.

Naturally enough, a common Christian attitude tends towards a lose-win agreement. We are high on consideration for others, but low on courage when facing opposition or debate. We allow the stronger voice to win and then appease our conscience by thinking how humble and gracious we are. We need to remember that all the habits are interrelated, interdependent and sequential. Therefore the private victory of being proactive, knowing our principled direction in life and what is important -all of these help us when facing decisions that need open discussion. How strong is our trust and our Emotional Bank Account with the other leaders, or in the congregation? This will affect the outcome. Very often, it is at this point that we need to apply the teaching of Habit Five.

Habit Five -Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

This habit of communication is a valuable one for all Christian leaders. Just as doctors, dentists and opticians diagnose before prescribing treatment, so leaders need to listen to others before prescribing the answers. Covey uses the word 'empathy' and 'empathic listening'. Coming from the Greek words 'em' and 'pathos " it has the meaning of listening with feeling or even entering into another's suffering. It means getting under the skin and into the real deeper feelings of a person and situation. He focuses on listening with the eyes rather than the ears. This habit is not used in normal everyday listening, but can be used in those emotive situations which require sensitive handling. You will discover that empathic listening is deeply therapeutic. It gives people 'psychological air', the freedom and space to open up. Once people are understood, they lower their defences and are more willing to listen to another person's point of view.

Sadly, many of us interpose our own 'autobiographical responses' in the name of listening. We probe and give advice from our own history. We evaluate and interpret what others say to us on the basis of our own background. Such an attitude prevents the other person expressing what is unique to them. We prescribe for others the wrong solution simply because our lines of communication are based on our own past. This teaching is not new and must be familiar to many leaders involved in counselling. What may be new, is the idea that it can be applied in situations other than counselling.

Faced with a serious problem, the leader who has won the private victory and now applies the habits related to a public victory, has the tools to make things happen. A win-win agreement is more possible because you first listen with empathy and so understand the other person 's point of view.

Habit Six - Synergy

Synergy is the habit of creative co-operation or team work. This is where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is the fruit of the other habits. Synergy results from valuing differences by bringing different perspectives together in an attitude of mutual respect. People then feel free to explore the best possible solution and find a third alternative that had not previously been considered.

Leaders in the local church, faced with overwhelming problems can discover together the direction God wishes them to take. Each person has won a private victory and is now able to control natural human reactions by being proactive and living in the freedom gap created by their conscience, imagination, self awareness and independent will. They share a common sense of purpose for they have looked for God's mission and direction. True principles have become the guide to what is important, helping them to avoid being forced down the wrong path by the pressure of the urgent. The previously undiscovered third alternative of God' s will has been revealed as all parties listen to each other and to God in a spirit of mutual trust and understanding. The synergistic experience of knowing the moving of the Holy Spirit among the group reveals exciting new possibilities. However, all of this will depend upon the success of those leaders to keep the saw sharp through their daily devotions, exercise, study and relationship building activities. As indicated earlier, Habit Seven -Sharpening the Saw is vital for the continuing effectiveness required by those whose high calling is to serve the living God.

The Revd Bryan Gilbert has completed his work for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and is now self employed as a training facilitator. He conducts official programmes based on the Seven Habits for the Covey Leadership Centre. He is also available to facilitate this teaching in the Christian context, and can be contacted via

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You are reading Reflections on 'Seven Habits of Highly Effective People' by Bryan Gilbert, part of Issue 7 of Ministry Today, published in June 1996.

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