Covey’s Greatest Six Principles

UPDATED: December 3, 2008
PUBLISHED: December 3, 2008

No. 1: Be Proactive: Be a ‘Trim-Tab’

To be proactive means more
than taking the initiative. It means
that we are responsible for our
own lives. Our behavior is a
function of our decisions, not our

I am a big fan of Buckminster
Fuller, who said he always wanted
to be a “trim-tab,” the small rudder
that turns the big rudder that turns
the entire ship. I believe there are
numerous potential trim-tabbers in
all walks of life who can lead and
spread their influence no matter
what position they hold.

Taking initiative is a form of selfempowerment.
More important,
we should empower people to
solve problems without them
having to go ask permission from
their boss to do so.

Years ago I served as an admin
to the president of a university.
This man in many ways was very
controlling and was from the
school that he knew what was
best when it came to making big
decisions. Although a talented
and brilliant man, he lacked the
interpersonal skills with the staff
and treated everyone like a gofer.
This had a disenchanting and
disempowering effect on all who
worked with him, and there were
many private discussions around
the office about the way he
treated others.

Then there was Ben, who simply
took another approach. Even
though he, too, was treated like
a gofer, he decided he would be
the best gofer in the office. He
soon was able to predict what
the president’s needs would be,
and when he was invited to an
important meeting, he asked if he
could present his data findings,
then went on to offer astute
analysis and recommendations.
The president loved his analysis
and invited him to give the same
presentation to the board.

Ben wasn’t resigned to the fact
that something couldn’t be done
about an unreasonable boss who
treated his people like children.
Ben was a trim-tab leader,
someone who is constant like a
lighthouse and not a weather
vane. A lighthouse is a constant
and reliable source of light that
doesn’t twist and turn with the

No. 2: Sharpen the Saw

First of all, decide what is
truly important and distinguish
it from that which is urgent but
not important. Half the time
people spend is on things that
are urgent but not important,
like a ringing phone, something
that is pressing, something that
is proximate or popular, but it
may not be important at all.
You must learn to say no to the
unimportant so you can say yes
to the important. Most of the
meetings people deem important
don’t need to be held. You need
to have screening devices on all
the new technologies so that when
something really important comes
through you can learn to say no
to the other things. It may upset a
few people because they want you
to do the popular thing, but you’ll
accomplish so much more.

I am working right now on six
very significant book projects and I
wouldn’t want to be deterred from
making those kinds of contributions
at all by getting enmeshed in
things that are urgent but not
really important.

I think that’s one of the first
things. Then learn to sharpen the
saw early in the day and then get
at it and work as a complementary
team, so you don’t have to go to
all those meetings, you don’t have
to do all that e-mail. You can learn
to say no. To say no because
of a burning yes about what
is important is one of the most
significant things you can do.

Make it a habit to cultivate the
four parts of your nature—body,
mind, heart and spirit. If you
neglect any one of them, you will
find it will have a negative effect
upon the other three and your
life will become imbalanced. You
could become work-centered
rather than principle-centered,
and you would find that the level
of your joy and happiness would
be significantly reduced, and
you’d go for secondary greatness,
rich and famous, instead of
primary greatness, character
and contribution.

And for the spiritual part, get
connected to that which seems to
be of intrinsic worth and value,
and also that which enables you
to make a difference. You want to
add value, you want to contribute,
and you want to develop a
character of absolute integrity. So
that primary greatness is character
and integrity.

No. 3: Seek to Understand Before
Seeking to be Understood

It’s human nature for us to want
to be understood. When both
parties are trying to be understood,
neither party is really listening. I
call this interaction, “the dialogue
of the deaf.” But to understand is
an important key to interpersonal
relationships and can magically
transform the course of discussions.
By making the investment of time and effort required to understand
the other party, we change the
dynamics of the interchange.

Years ago I was honored to train
the Indian chiefs who run Indian
Nations. They gave me a beautiful
gift of a “talking stick” and they
even engraved my name on the
back; they called me the Bald
Eagle. I carry it around with me
and whenever there is a difference
in opinion, I always give it to the
other person and say, “I can’t say
one thing until you feel understood,
not just in terms of what you’re
saying but what you’re feeling
about what you’re saying. I really
want to understand the meaning
of what you want to say.” This
helps to listen empathetically.
People who are insecure would
find this exercise painful because
it makes them vulnerable because
they don’t know what’s going to
happen. But the moment you begin
to listen empathetically, it unleashes
a level of creative energy that can
produce third, alternative solutions
to problems that no one had ever
thought about before.

I belong to a leadership summit
group of Christians, Jews and
Islamic people to develop a
better relationship between the
United States and the world
community, which I feel has
deteriorated over the last several
years. I introduced Indian talking
sticks for the three-day summit.
The results were astounding—in
fact it transformed that group.
Madeleine Albright, secretary
of state under President Clinton,
told me she has never seen
anything like this, adding this
would totally revolutionize
international diplomacy.

The Indian talking stick is
synergistic communication. The
value of the stick is that you don’t
get it back and cannot make your
point until the other person feels
understood. What air is to the
body, to be understood is to the
heart. I’m not worried about air now
because we have it. As soon as the
heart feels understood—not agreed
with, just understood—you become
open and teachable and creative.

No. 4: Begin with End in Mind

The most fundamental application
of “begin with the end in mind” is
to begin today with the image or
picture of the end of your life as
your frame of reference by which
everything else is examined. Each
part of your life can be examined
in the context of what really matters
most to you. It also means start
with a clear understanding of your
destination. It means know where
you’re going so that you better
understand where you are now and
so the steps you take are always in
the right direction.

It’s very easy to get caught up in
an activity trap, in the busy-ness of
life, to work harder at climbing the
ladder of success only to discover
it’s leaning against the wrong wall.
It is possible to be busy—very
busy—without being very effective.

How different our lives are when
we really know what is deeply
important for us and, keeping that
picture in our minds, we manage
ourselves each day to be and to do
what really matters most.

No. 5: Develop a Vision
Mission Statement

The reason so many give up on
their goals is because they don’t
have an overall sense of mission
or purpose. In other words, What
if you are the father or the mother
of a family? How important is it
that you are an example to your
children? How important is it that
you are the one who contributes
to society and achieves a feeling
of giving back, rather than just
taking and always asking what’s
in it for me? Once you get a deep
sense of your mission, your purpose
in life and your value system that
you want to live by based upon
universal and timeless principles,
then it’s the time to set goals and
set up a system of accountability,
not only for yourself, but for your
loved ones, so that you have some
follow-through system that keeps
you on track.

No. 6: Think Win-Win

Now is a good time to turn over
a new leaf and take stock of your
attitude and relationships as we
enter the New Year. Start with a
win-win attitude. It’s the basic idea
of the Golden Rule. It’s mutual
respect and mutual benefit. If you
have a win-win spirit, you want the
other person to win as well. Most
people grow up with the cultural
DNA of being compared to other
people and they begin to see life
through that lens, so they begin
to think win-lose or lose-win or
a compromise at best. The great
identity theft is not having someone
take your wallet and use your
credit cards—it’s the cultural DNA
of a comparison-based approach
that robs people of their true
identities. That’s why we must start
with little children, to affi rm their
worth and potential and to avoid
any form of comparison. I’m not
worried about athletic comparison
or competition in the marketplace,
but in the workplace and in the
home place we need to have
every person feel their worth and
their potential and to be part of a
complementary team.

Win-win is based on the
paradigm that there is plenty
for everybody, that one person’s
success is not achieved at the
expense or exclusion of the success
of others. The more you practice this
habit, the more committed you will
become as you find solutions that
truly do benefit both parties, when
originally it looked as if no such
agreement might be reached.