Primary Greatness: Internal character is more important than external title, position and popularity
“If you want the secondary greatness of recognized talent, focus first on primary greatness of character.” ~ Dr Steven Covey
You’ve probably come to know Dr Steven Covey from his famous book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. For the study of character and its role in leadership I recommend another one of his books: Primary Greatness: The 12 Levers of Success. This book is a collection of Dr. Covey’s essays that never appeared in previous books and were published after his death.
Dr. Covey does the reader a huge service in their leadership journey by differentiating between primary greatness and secondary greatness.
He writes that primary greatness “is who you really are – your character, your integrity your deepest motives and desires.” Dr. Covey contrasts this with secondary greatness, which is “popularity, title, position, fame, fortune and honors.”
He continues: “A successful life is about primary greatness – a life of duty, honor, integrity, perseverance, self-sacrifice, and service, regardless of material rewards or circumstances. These are natural, universal, unbreakable principles.”
“Ironically, secondary greatness often – but not always – follows primary greatness. People of good character tend to win at life because people trust them.”
Character, in Covey’s view, is the source of primary greatness.
He emphasizes the preeminence of character believing that ‘what you are [your character], is ultimately more important than competence, what you can do. Primary greatness is, at its base, a matter of character.”
“All else builds on this cornerstone. Even the very best structure, system, style, and skills can’t compensate completely for deficiencies in character.”
“Ultimately, what we are (character) is the most critical component of success.”
The 12 Character Traits of Primary Greatness
According to Dr. Covey there are 12 character traits or principles – which he calls ‘levers’ – that lead to primary greatness. “Principles like integrity, service and priority have great leverage. Only by applying these levers can you hope to dislodge the biggest obstacles to your success – lapses of character such as selfishness, victimism, and ‘fatal distractions’ from true priorities.”
The Lever of Integrity – “Those who have primary greatness are people for whom total integrity is deeply inscribed in their character.”
“If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” – Gordon A. Eadie
The Lever of Contribution – “Primary greatness is achieved by those who have a mission, a purpose to serve that is higher than themselves, a lasting contribution to make.”
“Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.” – Mr Holland’s Opus
The Lever of Priority – “…discerning the difference between first things and secondary things and making sure that first things stay first things.”
“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” – Stephen R. Covey
The Lever of Sacrifice – “Primary greatness depends on the principle that we are better together than alone, that no one person can do it all, and that no one ever made a worthwhile contribution all alone.”
“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ’If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But…the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ – Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Lever of Service – “Selfishness is the source of our heaviest burdens in life, while serving others – lightening the burdens of others – is the very essence of primary greatness.”
“At the end of life, we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.” – Mother Teresa
The Lever of Responsibility – “Those who practice primary greatness know that their quality of life depends on their own choices, not on the choices of others or even their circumstances.”
“The final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” – Anne Frank
The Lever of Loyalty – “The ultimate test of primary greatness is to be loyal to people who are absent…People with primary greatness are loyal; not unquestionably loyal, but they show the kind of loyalty that refuses to stereotype, castigate, or label others in their absence.”
“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
The Lever of Reciprocity – “Those who believe in secondary greatness want to tip the scales of every human interaction in their favor – their motto is ‘WIFM’: What’s in it for me? By contrast, those who live by the principle of reciprocity know there is no win in life if others do not win too.”
“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.” – John Joseph Powell
The Lever of Diversity – “People of secondary greatness tend to clone themselves; … Primary greatness seeks out diversity…Without diversity there is no synergy and, without synergy, nothing new happens.”
“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” – Maya Angelou
The Lever of Learning – “Secondary greatness isn’t very interested in learning, but a primary greatness demands it…The love of learning and the search for wisdom help make life worthwhile.”
“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keep learning stays young.” – Henry Ford
The Lever of Renewal – “You can’t achieve primary greatness by neglecting yourself – your health, your mind, your emotional and spiritual life. Each of these vital areas of your life needs constant, even daily, renewal.”
“Words are like eggs dropped from great heights. You could no more call them back than ignore the mess they left when they fell.” – Stephen R. Covey
The Lever of Teaching – ‘What’s the best way to internalize the levers of primary greatness you’ve just learned about? It’s simple: Teach them to others.”
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
A Final Word: Get Wisdom – “Where the goal of secondary greatness is self-promotion, the goal of primary greatness is wisdom.”
“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” – Gandhi
“Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.” – H. Jackson Browne
Humility and Courage: The Source of Virtues
Although Dr Covey lists 12 virtues, or levers, he recognizes that two are supreme: humility and courage.
In fact, he explains how the first lever, integrity, is really the child of these two primary character traits: humility and courage.
“Humility is the mother of all virtues. The humble progress because they willingly submit to and try to live in harmony with natural laws and universal principles…Humility means realizing that, over time, principles ultimately govern. A humble person doesn’t say, ‘I am in control,’ or ‘I am in charge of my destiny.’”
“Courage is the father of all virtues. We need great courage to lead our lives by correct principles and to have integrity in the moment of choice.” And when put to the test, “courage defines our commitment to those virtues. Eventually every value is tested.”
Notice how courage and humility are similar to strength and warmth, which I addressed in my post about the paradoxical nature of character.
Strength and warmth. Courage and Humility. Strength and Compassion. Justice and Wisdom.
It’s not one virtue, but the paradoxical interplay of seemingly opposite virtues, that is the source of your primary greatness!