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Using Covey’s ‘Seven Habits’
To Create Tomorrow’s Leaders


Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which has been such a hit in the adult world, is now being used to help shape the next generation of leaders through a spin-off approach called the Leader in Me. Included: Examples of Leader in Me in action.

The ideas in Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, so popular in business and personal growth arenas, now are shaping a new, younger audience.

Called the Leader in Me program, the in-school program was adapted from the seven habits by a principal, and now its implementation is overseen by Sean Covey of FranklinCovey Education Solutions. The school-wide approach emphasizes leadership, personal responsibility, and goal-setting. After being available for only two years, the program now is in 400 schools, according to Sean Covey.

“It’s a different paradigm, a different mindset,” Covey told Education World. “When you see every child as a leader, it impacts everything you do.”


Administrators who have adopted the Leader in Me describe it less as a program and more as an approach to living. “These principles are timeless and universal; they will be in place for years to come,” said Brian Hamilton, principal of South Dade Middle School in Miami, a grade 4-8 school. “These seven habits can work anywhere.”

Because it is implemented school-wide, the language is integrated into all aspects of school life, so it is not another program added to the school day. “We’re not asking staff to do anything new; we’re doing what we do better,” explained Amy Uchacz, principal of Frank Elementary School in Guadalupe, Arizona. “It’s not one more thing. It’s something embedded into the fiber of the school. The language is just so embedded now that it’s natural, and it’s not going away.”

Seven Habits
For Kids

Habit 1: Be Proactive. You're responsible for your results. Your life stems from careful design or careless choice. You choose to direct your life, or you choose to be the plaything of circumstance.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind. See the finish line before you start. How do you want people to remember you? What result do you want to have at days' end?

Habit 3: Put First Things First. Choose to do what it takes to reach your finish line regardless of mood or circumstance.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win. Whenever it comes to others, ask how you can get what you want while helping them get what they want.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. Listen before you speak. Get people to clarify their understanding of what you've said.

Habit 6: Synergize. You get greater results working with others than the sum of your combined efforts working singly.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw. Take the time to keep your mind, body, emotions, and spirit in peak condition.

Hamilton agreed. “The last thing a teacher today wants to hear is ‘We’re adding one more thing to your plate.’ Now I’m saying ‘Here is your plate.’ If you give them the strategies and the language to use, it provides the students with the skill set they will need to function.”

Leader in Me focuses on developing seven habits in students that they can use throughout their lives. (See sidebar) All students are given leadership roles in the classroom, such as a greeter or a paper-passer, so they all have some responsibility for the operation of the classroom. Students also have leadership responsibilities in other classes such as music and art. At South Dade Middle School, for example, a student leader in the music class wrote a rap about the seven habits.

View video of a Seven Habits rap performed by sixth graders in Carey, Idaho.

Students keep data notebooks in which they list a personal and academic goal for each quarter and chart the progress toward reaching them. For younger children, the goal could be as simple as swinging with a new person once a week. If students don’t meet their goals, they list action steps to help them achieve them. Parent conference are student-led, during which students discuss their progress toward personal and academic goals with their teacher and parents.

“It’s the idea that kids can really take on responsibilities, and really do have the ability to solve their own problems,” said Darcy DiCosmo, principal of Kyrene de los Cerritos Elementary School, a pre-K-grade five school in Phoenix. “It’s about setting goals, looking at things, and looking within you to handle things. When kids see a purpose for what they are doing, set goals, and see a reason for them to be in school, they don’t get bored.”


Leader in Me evolved from an approach developed by Muriel Summers, the principal of A.B. Combs Elementary Leadership Magnet School, which was at the time a failing school in Raleigh, North Carolina. Summers attended a presentation on the seven habits and was searching for something to keep the school from being shut down. She decided to make AB Combs a leadership school and implemented seven habits’ principles. Within a year, the school had turned around, according to Covey.

“The brilliant thing A.B. Combs did was that it was ubiquitous; they integrated the language and practices school-wide,” Covey told Education World. “They developed leadership roles for everyone. Kids are constantly told they are capable and can succeed.”

Summers contacted Covey and said principals from all over the country were calling every day to visit the school. “She said, ‘This is based on your seven habits; you have a moral obligation to do something about this,’” Covey said. “We looked at her model, then developed a program.”

Full implementation takes three years, according to Covey. Preparation includes building a leadership operation system and about seven days of training, half with all staff members and half with a designated “champion team,” which includes the principal and a representative from each grade level. “We tell schools we have a step-by-step process they can follow.”

Follow-up studies showed that Leader in Me schools have higher test scores, fewer discipline problems, and higher teacher engagement and parent satisfaction, Covey noted. Even he was a bit startled by the program’s success. “This has been a huge surprise,” he added. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”


“It’s a different paradigm, a different mindset… When you see every child as a leader, it impacts everything you do.”

One school where the Leader in Me had some of the most dramatic effects was Mountainville Academy, a public charter school in Alpine, Utah, which Covey’s children attend. The first few years the school was open, all went well, but then some leadership changes occurred and “some things transpired that had a detrimental affect on the atmosphere of the school,” according to current principal Emma Bullock, who took office in March 2009. Enrollment dropped, staff members left, and students and teachers were on autopilot. “It was a toxic atmosphere,” Bullock said. “People were fleeing the building.”

Covey suggested Bullock visit AB Combes and paid for the trip. Bullock called her visit a “transforming experience.” “I walked in the doors, and the pores and walls of the school seemed to be oozing love,” she told Education World. “We were missing the cultural and personal excellence aspect of our mission. We had done well academically, but we did not have a positive atmosphere.”

Bullock met with her two assistant principals who talked about the school’s vision and mission, and drafted core values to use in decision-making. They took their outline to the staff, made some changes, and the faculty voted on it. After receiving approval from the school’s board, administrators started using the seven habits’ language.

In August, staff members took part in training and were told to apply the ideas to their own lives, although some of the ideas were “sneaking in” to the classroom, according to Bullock. By October, teachers had undergone more training and were using the Leader in Me with students. “Instead of doing a lot of good things, we’ve been doing more great things,” she explained. “We’ve aligned all systems and arrows so we’re all going in the same unified direction.”

Major shifts in the culture and student and teacher attitudes occurred over a short time. “We have teachers who like coming to work and students who do more than take up space,” Bullock said. “We have very few discipline problems and hundreds of students on the waiting list.” Academic performance has improved as well.

“It’s just a totally different school and I have to attribute that to the Leader in Me,” Bullock told Education World.


Other administrators were not facing circumstances as dire in their schools, but were looking for ways to raise expectations for students and motivate them when they came across the Leader in Me.

“I really felt I wanted to bring something to students that opens doors for them,” Uchacz said. “I really wanted students to see that they can make decisions today that affect their future. I wanted them to see beyond what they are experiencing now. If you dream of something today, you can do it tomorrow.” Teachers uses phrases such as win-win and proactive even in kindergarten. The school holds a weekly leadership assembly to celebrate successes.

DiCosmo wanted to inspire her students to go beyond what is expected. “We are an excelling school, we have great family involvement, but I felt that we could really get kids to not just do what has to be done, but get them to be great,” she told Education World. “Now they are learning how to get along with others and creating a community. [The idea is] Whatever you do, you are impacting someone else, so you should do it in positive way.”

At Fair Oaks Elementary School in Marietta, Georgia, principal Cindy Szwec had noticed growing student disengagement over the past two years -- even in students as young as second grade. “I felt we needed something school-wide to increase responsibility and motivation,” Szwec told Education World. “Students were not doing homework and not engaged in the school day.”

This year at least one class at every grade level is using the Leader in Me approach, and teachers are pleased with the progress, she said. “The kids are excited about setting goals.” Teachers are discussing the seven habits at faculty meetings, and the plan is to implement the Leader in Me school-wide next year, added Szwec.

At South Dade Middle School, Hamilton built the Leader in Me into the school when it opened four years ago, because it matched his administrative approach. “My style is more about coaching; building a rapport with students, staff, and the community,” according to Hamilton. “With all the stress on high-stakes testing, it still is important to work on relationships.” The first day of school, he said, all students are taught how to shake hands properly and it is not unusual to see students greeting an adult visitor to the building with a firm handshake.

The school added at least one grade each year to the program, and even with the increase in enrollment, the number of suspensions has dropped by 13 percent from last year.

“We are at a point in society where focus is on bottom line results -- education is starting to focus more on test scores and student achievement. This has its place, but it’s not the only place we go. Kids need 21st century skills; relationship skills, teamwork skills, collaboration, taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and accepting the consequences of choices. I feel it is our job to give them the skill set they will need in later life.”



A Guidebook for Teens
An interview with Sean Covey about his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2011 Education World


Originally published 01/10/2011