Counters to the 7 Habits

Stephen Covey says his 7 Habits are “natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably ‘there’ as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension.” (7 Habits, p. 32).   The kid version of the 7 habits (described here) are full of words like “right”, “wrong”, “should” and “should not”.  Everything about the 7 Habits is very prescriptive.

I assert that living a life in opposition to the 7 Habits is just as “true” a way to live.  The 7 Habits may be right for some.  But what about teaching our children how to figure out right and wrong themselves, rather than tell them there is only one “right” way?  At a minimum, let’s wait until they are adults before teaching them what a business self-help guru’s opinions are about how to live a “true” life, so that our kids have enough experience to make their own evaluation.

Here are each of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits for kids, followed by my Counter which shows what the Counter Habit would look like.

1. Covey’s Habit 1 is Be Proactive.  This habit is about doing “the right thing” and “not blaming others for my wrong actions”.

Counter #1: Be Flexible

I am flexible and adaptive.  I am able to cope well with and support change initiated by others.  I understand that we live in a diverse world and that in every situation there are many valid responses.  I am open-minded and do not negatively judge someone whose opinions are different from mine.

What’s important is to help our kids learn how to find their own moral compass in order to distinguish right from wrong, and learn the nuances of how this can be different for everyone.  Giving kids a habit that implies there is one right way to do things represents a simplistic world that none of us live in.

2. Covey’s Habit 2 is Begin with the End in Mind.  The adult version is of this habit is about figuring out what you want out of life, and making sure that the things you’re doing are really moving you closer to that goal.  The kid version is sort of about planning ahead.  It’s also about “the end”, which, based on the wording of this habit, is focusing on the greater good – how an individual student can contribute to their classroom, their school, and their community by being a “good” citizen.  I’m not sure why the kid version is muddled.  Maybe The Covey Institute was smart enough to realize that no elementary school child is ready to truly understand what their end goal is, and instead they suggested we teach children about working towards “the greater good” until they figure out what they want out of life.

As further information about this habit, the story from “The 7 Habits of Happy Kids” that illustrates the habit is about two characters who earn some money.  The first knows ahead of time that he wants to go see a movie.  He carefully saves his money, and makes a “good” purchase of a movie ticket and snacks at the movie.

The second character doesn’t have a plan.  He immediately spends every penny he earns on “junk” – silly toys and candy – and he doesn’t have enough money left to see the movie.

My child is the second character. He needs to make the mistake himself in order to learn the lesson.  And I’d argue that the first character could benefit from making a mistake or two of his own.  Being “perfect” according to someone else’s idea of perfect might sound good on paper, but thinking for yourself is a much more important skill.  Kids need to learn how to make their own good choices rather than blindly doing what someone else thinks is right. And one of the best ways for them to think for themselves is to let the make their own decisions, and their own mistakes.

Counter #2: Learn From Your Mistakes

I always try do my best.  I don’t shy away from trying things for fear I will do them wrong. When I make mistakes, I think about what went wrong, and what I will do differently so that I won’t make that same mistake again.

3. Covey’s Habit 3 is Put First Things First.  This habit is about setting priorities, making a schedule, doing what you’re supposed to be doing, even if you don’t want to, and being disciplined and organized.

Counter #3: Live Each Day to the Fullest

I am excited every day when I wake up to find out what the day will hold.  I look forward to what I will learn at school, and to discover what opportunities will open up to me today. I take chances because they help me learn and grow.

In support of this approach, here are the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying as recorded by palliative nurse Bonnie Ware.

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Of course it’s important to plan, and to do meaningful things. But as with everything, there is no black and white, right and wrong.  I don’t want to live the life Stephen Covey expects of me, nor do I want my kids to live the life that Stephen Covey imagines for them.   I want them to live the life they imagine.

4. Covey’s Habit 4 is Think Win-Win.

Counter #4: Think Win-Win

This one I will concede to Covey.  I think that helping kids think outside the box and work towards mutually beneficial solutions is a great conflict resolution strategy.  For kids.  Interestingly, even Covey recognizes that this is not a skill that kids will be able to carry successfully into the business world, because it only works if all parties are participating equally.  Otherwise the win-win person will concede too much to the side that is just looking out for themselves.  Covey imagines a perfect world where everyone thinks the same way.  I don’t share his vision.

5. Covey’s Habit 5 is Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood.

I don’t have a Counter to this one.  I just picture Covey’s perfect world again where everyone thinks the same way and behaves exactly as Covey wants them to::

Imagine two kids on the playground who have had an altercation and are trying to work it out, following Covey’s Habits:

Kid 1: I want to understand your point of view, tell me how you’re feeling.

Kid 2: I want to understand your point of view, first you tell me how you’re feeling.

Kid 1: You first.

Kid 2: No, you first.

My answer is clearly facetious, though like win-win, it points to what I consider Covey’s overly simplistic and black and white view of the world and the people in it.


6. Covey’s Habit 6 is Synergize.  This habit is about working well with others, seeking out other people’s ideas because better solutions come from working together, and being humble.

Counter # 6: Trust Your Instincts

My ideas are valid and good.  It’s ok to be different, and to follow my own path.  I stand up for what I believe is right, even if I have to do it alone.

Sure, it can be important to be a good team player.  But not everyone is a team player, at least not all the time.  What about people who prefer to be alone, and to work alone?  Are they wrong?  Artists, writers, sculptors, engineers, composers, and inventors, to name a few, often do much of their work alone.  It takes all types of people to make a good society, and there’s no reason for us to teach children that kids who prefer to do some things alone are doing it wrong.

7. Covey’s Habit 7 is Sharpen the Saw.  This habit is about finding balance.

Counter #7: Find Your Passion

When I find something I truly love, I pursue it.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he asserts that anyone who is going to become truly great at something must spend 10,000 hours doing it.  He holds up Bill Gates as an example.  By the time Bill was in his 20s, he had spent 10,000 hours learning to program computers, and much of that was done in the middle of the night when he was able to get access to the mainframe computers.  He certainly wasn’t focusing on balance and getting a good night’s sleep during that time.

I’m not saying that Bill Gates’s way of doing it was the right way.  I’m simply saying that Stephen Covey’s way is not the only way.  And I really wish he wouldn’t try to tell our kids that it is.


The Habit of Critical Thinking

In “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey talks about the 7 Habits as “natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably ‘there’ as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension” (7 Habits, p. 32).  The Leader in Me program for kids turns these 7 Habits into very prescriptive rules for how a child ought to behave, focusing on being proactive, doing the “right” thing, working before playing, planning ahead, following a schedule, looking people in the eye.

Just as Covey uses strong language in his belief that these 7 Habits are “natural laws in the human dimension”, the Leader in Me uses strong language that teaches children these Habits are “right”.  They teach the kids the “right” way to be.  The actual words “right” and “wrong” appear often in the description of the 7 Habits.

Consider this statement from Alfie Kohn’s article How Not To Teach Values.

Anyone who brushes away the question “Which values should be taught?” might speculate on the concrete differences between a school dedicated to turning out students who are empathic and skeptical and a school dedicated to turning out students who are loyal, patriotic, obedient, and so on.

If you begin with the premise that “good conduct is not our natural first choice,” then the best you can hope for is “the development of good habits”[42] — that is, a system that gets people to act unthinkingly in the manner that someone else has deemed appropriate.

If we want children to resist [peer pressure] and not be victims of others’ ideas, we have to educate children to think for themselves about all ideas, including those of adults.

I contend that the most important habit we should teach our children is the habit of critical thinking.  Rather than tell our kids to behave the way Stephen Covey believes is the “right” way, we should be teaching them how to figure out right and wrong for themselves. And we have to be human enough to recognize that “right” and “wrong” are not black and white – they truly can be different for everyone.

The slippery slope with the 7 Habits is that they seem so obvious.  “Put first things first” – who can argue with that? This program explicitly tells the children they should do their homework before they play. What parent wouldn’t love to have a kid who settles right down after school and gets that schoolwork out of the way?  Ten years of raising my oldest child tells me that this is a horrible idea for him. Making him sit down to do homework right after he spent a whole day sitting in school is a recipe for disaster. Trust me, I know this from hard earned experience. The “right” thing for him is a good, solid break after school to run around, eat a snack, be crazy, veg out, hang with friends, anything but more sitting still at a desk. And then he can buckle down and get his work done.

My kid is an individual, with individual needs, his own personality, his own ideas about the world. What works for some kids won’t work for him, and vice versa. This should surprise no one. We are a world of 7 billion people. Since when did anyone really think that you could write down 7 Habits that would be right for 7 billion people?

Parents and teachers want a silver bullet to “fix” our schools, “fix” our kids, to make them behave. But is our job truly to make them behave? Or is it to help them grown into adults who can understand the complexity of the world, and navigate through it in their own, unique, individual, and wonderful way?

No Independent Research

There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence on The Leader in Me Website saying that this program works.  It’s filled with videos and quotes from teachers, parents, and principals who talk about how much they love the program and what an incredible difference it made at their school.

But if you look carefully, you will notice the following:

  • No 3rd party studies or research has been done to show The Leader in Me really improves academic performance and reduces disciplinary problems.
  • With each anecdote you read, you can easily think of many causes that would bring about the reported results – the cause and effect between The Leader in Me and the school’s improvements are never proven, and in many cases are hardly even mentioned.
  • No one considers at all whether or not The Leader in Me program causes any harm.  Only a true 3rd party review would accomplish that goal.  And I expect that analysis to happen before a new program is brought into my child’s school.

Promising Results

The first link on the “What are the Results?” page is called Promising Results. This PDF was written by David Hatch, who works for FranklinCovey Eduction.  It is purely anecdotal (though it includes numbers and graphs to give the impression that it is factual and quantitative even though it’s not), and it does not prove a connection between the Leader in Me and improved academic achievement, or reduced behavioral issues.  Here are just 3 examples of the kind of “data” in this document:

Winchester Elementary, West Seneca, New York. At Winchester Elementary, the school is ranked annually against 225 other schools in Western New York. The ranking is weighted 50% on Math and 50% on English Language Arts (ELA) scores. For six years (2005 to 2010) the highest rank the school achieved was 50th. In 2011, following the first year of Leader in Me implementation, the school jumped to 33rd in rank.

2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Rank (255 schools) 104 88 52 50 57 57 33

At face value, those numbers look great!  The text which says “following the first year of Leader In Me implementation, the school jumped to 33rd in rank” really makes you think The Leader in Me caused a big jump – from 50 to 33!  But look at what was happening before that.  In the years leading up to 2011, the school had already moved up from 104 to 57 – a significant improvement.  It seems much more likely that what they started doing in 2005 was making more of a difference than one year of The Leader in Me, but Franklin Covey took credit for that year anyway.

Dewey Elementary, Quincy, Illinois. Parents and teachers at Dewey Elementary were delighted to see the following rise in Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) scores for reading and math:

Before 7 Habits (8 year average)

First year after 7 Habits

Second year after 7 Habits









It sure looks good, but comparing an 8 year average to a single year’s performance isn’t meaningful in any way, and wouldn’t stand up with any scientist or statistician anywhere.  The school could easily have been showing steady improvement already in the 8 years before the 7 Habits were introduced.  In fact, a 64.5% average over 8 years can be accomplished with the following scores: 50%, 53%, 57%, 58%, 61%, 72%, 80%, 85%.  See how by not including the data, it’s possible to make up any possible reason for the school hitting 89%?  Maybe it was Leader in Me?  Or maybe it was a any number of other changes the school was making in the previous 8 years that showed a steady progression to 89%.

Sulphur Springs Elementary, Tampa, Florida. Dr. Christi Chandler Buell, Principal, and former Leonard Miller Principal Leadership Award Gold Medallion Finalist, reported being absolutely delighted that 99% of the fourth grade students at the school scored four or above on the year’s FCAT writing exam. The state average was 80% and the district was 89%. The school is 100% free/reduced lunch (highest % in the district for elementary schools).

Notice that in this one, Leader in Me isn’t even mentioned.  Maybe the Leader in Me program caused that 99%.  Or maybe the school always performs that high, but the Covey Institute chose not to mention that fact.  Or maybe the Covey Institute wanted a chance to slip in the words “Leadership Award Gold Medallion Finalist”, though that principal’s award has nothing to do with The Leader in Me . Or maybe the Covey Institute wanted to imply that The Leader in Me works even for schools with 100% free/reduced lunch.  I wonder if The Covey Institute is simply taking credit for school successes that really have nothing to do with the The Leader in Me.  It’s impossible to know, but easy to wonder about when you start looking at all that anecdotal evidence with a critical eye.

Johns Hopkins University Case Study

The only 3rd Party study about The Leader in Me was conducted by Johns Hopkins. It definitely is not a scientific study showing that the program is effective.

Here is a summary of the problems with this study:

  • It included 2 schools.  There is no statistical relevance in 2 schools.  It says right in the study:  “Given that the case studies involved only two, somewhat selective schools, the generalizability of these interpretations to other TLIM schools needs to be viewed cautiously.”
  • This study was qualitative, not quantitative.  From the study: “The major purpose of the evaluation study was to assess implementation progress and activities with regard to the experiences and reactions of teachers, students, school administrators, and other key stakeholders (e.g., community leaders and business partners). A replicated qualitative case study design was employed in two schools”
  • The Evaluation questions were about how the program was implemented, not about whether or not it works.  From the study, here are the 5 Evaluation Questions they were trying to answer:
  1. How is TLIM being used by teachers, administrators, and students at each school with regard to program-specific activities, classroom instruction, and school events in general?
  2. What are the main components of program implementation at each school?
  3. What are the following major participants’/stakeholders’ perceptions regarding the program’s value impacts on students’ life skills, behavior, and academic achievement and transfer of benefits to the home and community?
  4. What are trends in student achievement in reading/language arts (R/LA) and mathematics before and after program adoption?
  5. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the program implementation, and recommendations for improvement?
  • The study mentions that both schools have principals with strong leadership skills.  It should be considered that any positive impacts observed were because of those principals, rather than LIM. From the study “At both of the case study schools, strong principal support and leadership skills appeared to be a critical factor in ensuring fidelity of implementation. We suspect that under weaker, less involved principal leadership, implementation and sustainability of TLIM would face much greater challenges.”

Misleading Marketing

The Leader in Me Blog shows many successes from Leader In Me schools.  For example, this post appeared on The Leader In Me Blog on May 14, 2013:

Leader in Me Principal Named Outstanding Educator of the Year

By Christina McGuey,  May 14, 2013

Dr. John McKenna, Fletcher Elementary School Principal, has been honored by being named the New York State Outstanding Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State.
The award is given out each year to one of the association’s members and recognizes “outstanding contributions to public education, professional organizations and research and/or writing in the field of education”.
Dr. McKenna has more than 20 years of experience in education and has served as an administrator with the Tonawanda City School District for the past 17 years.
The Tonawanda City School District is honored to have such fine administrators to help lead our students toward academic success and achieving their dreams.
Christina McGuey, Client Partner
FranklinCovey Education

The implication is clearly that The Leader in Me program was part of this principal’s success.  It says it right there in the title of the blog post!

Compare that with the local news coverage of this event (you can read the full article here)

April 18, 2012

Fletcher principal honored for literacy program

Most notably, he cited McKenna’s implementation of the Balanced Literacy Model he created during his doctoral program at SUNY Buffalo.

“This program became the model for literacy across our district and had a dramatic effect on student achievement. It was instrumental in our district being awarded the National Blue Ribbon of Excellence,” Batterson said.

Hm.  It looks like the Balanced Literacy Model he created was the main reason he got this honor.  In fact, The Leader in Me isn’t mentioned anywhere in this article.  Only in the blog post on The Leader In Me Website implies there’s a connection.

Our Path To Leader In Me

A few staff members from my school were invited to the Leadership Event that another school held when it was working towards becoming a Lighthouse School.  One of the criteria to become a Lighthouse School (something the Covey Institute holds up as a higher status for any Leader In Me School to achieve) is that you sell the program to other schools in the community.  Our school counselor attended this event to learn about The Leader In Me.  Because she went through the 7 Habits business training a few years ago, and found it very helpful to her personally, the Leader In Me program really resonated with her. She encouraged our principal to look into bringing the program to our school.

The Program is Expensive

The Leader In Me Program is a 3 year program which costs upwards of $75,000 to bring to a school.  It includes student and teacher workbooks for every grade level, posters, a storybook, and many days of teacher training.  Our school contacted the Covey Institute about the program, but was then unable to get the funds from our school district or our PTA to bring this program to our school.

Panda Express

The Covey Institute decided to help. They work with a number of companies who are helping to promote The Leader In Me program.  One of these companies is Panda Express.  The Covey Institute contacted Panda Express on our behalf, and Panda Express agreed to give our school a grant so we could bring this program to our school.

Consider if you will what the motivations are here.  Panda Express is not an expert in educating children.  They did not perform an academic or educational review of the materials for their appropriateness for use in a public school.  As far as I can tell, there are 2 reasons that Panda Express wants to give out grants for this program:

1. Panda Express looks good for giving donations to schools.

2. The owner of Panda Express is a huge believer in The 7 Habits curriculum.  He asks all of his employees to go through the 7 Habits training.  For more on this topic, see, The inner Leader and General Tso, Meet Stephen Covey.  Also note that Andrew Cherng is a proponent of many self help genres, including Landmark Education.

(12/1/17: Both of these Panda Express links have been removed/put behind pay walls.  Here’s a more recent article about Andrew Cherng’s interest in promoting Stephen Covey’s work.  Also, according to The Leader In Me website, Panda Express has given grants to 880 schools so far – the biggest provider of grants by a factor of 80, and accounting for about 30% of the schools using The Leader In Me program.)

It would be different if Panda Express donated money to schools and allowed professional educators to determine the best way to use that money to help kids.  Instead, by giving our school a grant for one specific program, Panda Express is dictating what program will be implemented in our school.

Yes, our principal and school counselor sought out this program.  But look at the chain of events:

1. Franklin Covey asked a neighboring school to advertise this program to my school.

2. When my school couldn’t afford the program, Franklin Covey provided us with a grant.

Maybe The Leader In Me program is a great program.  Or maybe my school principal and counselor got hoodwinked by a very smart marketing scheme that promised to improve our test scores and decrease our behavioral problems FOR FREE.  Note that our school was already a very high-performing school, with very few behavior problems.  We live in an upper class neighborhood.  Won’t our school look great on the list of Lighthouse Schools on the Covey website?

Leadership or Compliance?

Despite the word “Leader” in the title which catches every parent’s eye, the speaker from the Covey Institute who came to our school said they recognize not every child will grow up to be a leader.  He said that this program is about making each child “a leader of their own life”.  The program is really more focused on teaching personal responsibility than it is about teaching leadership skills.

Originally the 7 habits were marketed as a way to make adults “highly effective”.  The children’s book is called “7 Habits for Happy Kids”.

Somehow FranklinCovey went from Effective -> Happy -> Leader.  

Whether the 7 habits are really about being effective, or being happy, I believe the term “Leader” was chosen purely as a marketing technique.

What this program really teaches is Compliance.

Think for a minute about the characteristics you think a great leader should have.  Words like Vision, Tenacity, Decisiveness, Passion, Good Communication come to mind.  Now read each habit (click here to see the full descriptions). None of those leadership words are there.  The 7 Habits are about doing what’s right, making a schedule and sticking to it, being a good citizen, etc.  I can see why parents and teachers are attracted to this – who doesn’t dream of a child who always does the right thing without even being asked?  But that doesn’t make this curriculum about leadership.  It makes it a curriculum about compliance.

Reading reviews of The Leader in Me online tells me that compliance is what teachers and parents are seeking.  Kids these days are out of control! they have no respect for authority! classroom sizes are too big! no one is teaching their kids values any more! parents aren’t doing their job at home, so the school has to do it! we need religion in schools to teach morals! the problem is we no longer have corporal punishment!

As it turns out, teachers and parents will pay a lot of money for a program like The Leader in Me that promises to make kids more compliant. There is no doubt that the perception is our schools are failing our kids, and FranklinCovey, in a great show of marketing genius, has stepped in to solve the problem.

But compliant children is not the cure for our school system woes, and it’s not what we should be trying to accomplish.

Here’s a great quote from an article about raising compliant children:

“Telling someone their child is obedient is (usually) meant as a compliment. But an obedient adult? Not quite so attractive is it? We have other words for that, doormat being one of them.”

And here’s a link to the article: Since when did obedience become the epitome of good parenting

Lighthouse School Criteria

A Leader in Me School can strive to become a Lighthouse school if they meet these Criteria to be a Lighthouse School.  These criteria should be carefully examined.  I’ve included them in summary below.  Note that these criteria are not about how successful the program is at reducing behavioral problems at the school, or improving student performance.  They focus instead on how deeply the Leader In Me program is embedded into the school and shared with its families, and the community.  The requirement to share the program with other schools feels like a pyramid scheme.

Take a look at the published criteria, and think about whether a school that achieves Lighthouse status is focused on making kids successful, or on making FranklinCovey successful.

  1. Create a Lighthouse Team whose job is to ensure the program is embedded deeply into all aspects of the school, including teaching it to new staff and teachers
  2. Make sure the Leader In Me program is visible on bulletin boards in classrooms, and in hallways, even in the songs the kids sing.
  3. Make sure the Leader In Me language is used on a daily basis.
  4. Make sure all teachers and staff members (new staff members are explicitly mentioned) are implementing the Leader In Me program.
  5. Assign students the title of “leader”, have them plan events that support the leadership theme.
  6. Teach Parents about using The Leader In Me program at home
  7. Have an event to sell The Leader In Me program to other schools in the community.
  8. The school must show that it is tracking its progress, but this criterion does not require the school to show improvement, only to  show that they’re tracking.
  9. This is the only criterion that asks the school to show improvement.  But even here the wording is very soft:

“Choose indicators to measure, collect baseline data, and track
regularly to determine where and to what degree the leadership
model is bringing improvements (e.g., discipline referrals,
academic achievement, attendance and/or tardies, staff and/or
parent satisfaction).”

I’ve found many schools on the web that are bragging that they achieved “Lighthouse School” status (in this article they call it a prestigious designation). But based on the criteria above, what that really means is that they fully bought into the program.  They’re being rewarded by The Covey Institute for helping sell The Leader In Me program.  And The Covey Institute is getting more press for it.

Marketing Genius.