As I think of top performance and Dr. Stephen Covey, there are a flood of starting points. One memory is of attending the highly acclaimed “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Dr. Covey’s signature work. My first journey through the “7 Habits” material was much like a tourist visit – interesting but all surface understanding (if that).

Months later, I completed the course again as my organization was taking serious strides to apply the profound truths. In the meantime, I had moved into a position of greater responsibility with a larger team. This significant job change caused me to carefully seek to learn from Dr. Covey.

One illustration I found especially motivating was when Dr. Covey used a large container and talked about how to best fill with large rocks, small pebbles, sand, and water. Covey showed that by working small-to-large (water, sand, etc.), it was impossible to put all the items in the single container. On the other hand, if Covey went from large to small (large rocks, small pebbles, etc.), all the items fit in the one container.

Using this physical analogy, I began to process (and continue to this day) the importance of purpose and principle-based living – the big rocks if you will. As the years passed, I re-visited the “7 Habits” material multiple times and came away each time with new insight. With this mind, here is a question to set the stage for this article.

What does it take for knowledge workers to reach

higher and higher levels of top performance?

While there could be several right answers, here are some thoughts to start the discussion.

Discover, Look At, and Shift Mind-Sets

Mental maps directly impact behavior. One speaker called mindsets “belief windows.” What is on these windows determines decisions. For instance, if I hold a mindset of respect for people regardless of race or background, I will act in a naturally positive way with co-workers and anyone else for that matter. If I hold an internal bias against people of certain races or circumstances, the behavior is eventually obvious.

The challenge is when one stumbles on a previously invisible mindset and finds it less than ideal (the deepest mental maps are the hardest to see). Several years ago, I discovered I thought of disagreement and disrespect as one in the same. (I can still take you to the spot of this realization.) What this meant in practical terms was my team members had a hard time disagreeing with me because I interpreted anything more than minor argument as offensive. The team was not living up to its potential mainly because of me.

Once I found this sub-par paradigm, I decided to adopt a new mindset of disagreement and disrespect as two, separate things. While I still have a long way to go, this mindset change had a huge, positive impact on my supervisory and team style.

Orient Around a Timeless Core

Assuming the leadership student accepts the charter to work on mindsets, what paradigms should stay, change, and by what standard? Dr. Covey argued for using principles which he defined (I’m paraphrasing) as timeless, obvious, and trust-building. As my consultant, friend Lee puts it, “what does it take to build a happy, life-long marriage?” The answer to this question creates a list of principles.

A few examples of principles includes respect, courage, integrity, humor, excellence, and service. Using principles as measuring sticks for mindset examination and change yields great outcomes. One strong argument for living with principles at the core is consequences are then predictable over the long-term. It is completely normal for most people to want high quality relationships and these blossom with principle-centered decision-making.

Make Sure the Core Includes a Personal Mission

It’s great to live principle-centered but the would-be leader will want to consider personalizing all this good information into a personally inspiring mission. This is part of what Dr. Covey referred to as the “private victory” or an inner work on self-awareness and improvement to build more effective professional and personal relationships. While the process to shape a personal mission is for another article, let me mention a few quick points.

To clarify personal purpose, the question ‘why’ is a powerful tool. Why am I here? Why do I have these unique talents, gifts, personality, and to what end? How do I best use these traits for long-term good? Why should I create a personal mission in the first place?

There are also important ‘how’ questions. How do combine seemingly diverse interests? How do I want to be remembered? How do I want to interact with others to be the best me I can be? The journey of self-discovery is a worthy – but not an overnight – endeavor.


Without action, all of the above are just good intentions. Dr. Covey often said, ‘To know and not to do is not to know.” Well said. If mindset work and principle-centered living are not important enough for concrete activity, they become another flavor-of-the-month void of results. Conversely, if the intent is matched with efforts of continual improvement, better results are the reward. The positive consequences can be many things such as stronger business performance, fewer crises, high performance teams, and deeper relationships with the people who matter most.

Another part of engagement is connection with people. Listening, one of the neglected skills, is a powerful tool for learning and growing. Dr. Covey often talked about listening with full intent and to avoid creating a mental response before the other party finished speaking. He put it as “Seek to Understand Before Being Understood.” This noble statement is harder to do than it sounds, especially when there’s conflict in the mix. And yet, the dividends are tremendous for honest, genuine listening.

The habits of effectiveness are deceivingly simple and amazingly affirming. Dr. Covey showed us the way and, as he might say, ‘What are your big rocks?’

This is a reprint of an article I recently wrote for Crowned Grace International as a tribute to the late Dr. Stephen Covey.