The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers–Habit 1: Be Proactive


God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.—Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr

1. Habit 0—Be Aware of Yourself

The first step in applying any of the 7 Habits that Stephen Covey describes requires you to stand apart from yourself and observe yourself as if you were looking at another person. I call this “Habit 0″, although Covey himself does not use that term. In my opinion, the way to get the most out of his book is to get the Personal Workbook which allows you to make observations on your thoughts, behaviors, and actions based on the material you have read in each chapter. So my recommendation for those who read his book is to go get the workbook and—work through it!

2. Habit 1: What does”proactive” mean? Let’s ask Shakespeare!

Figure 1. Habit 1: Be Proactive

I think the common conception of the word “proactive” is “Acting in advance to deal with an expected difficulty; anticipatory” according to the American Heritage Dictionary. However, in my opinion Stephen Covey’s conception of the word “proactive” is somewhat larger in meaning, more like the definition of the word in the Collins Dictionary of “tending to initiate change rather than reacting to events.” You can initiate change in anticipation of future events, but you can also initiate change in response to past mistakes, and to one’s present circumstances.

Figure 2. Freedom to Choose = Being Proactive

If you believe that genetics, one’s childhood experience, and one’s environment SOLELY determine one’s behavior and attitude, then you are believer in determinism and are reactive. If you are able to use self-awareness to examine yourself, and then use one’s imagination, will and conscience to create a space in which you have freedom to choose your behavior and attitude, then you are being proactive in the wider sense.

It is this wider sense of the word proactive that gives insight into the genius beyond Shakespeare’s plays. Harold Bloom, the most celebrated literary critic in the United States, has written about what makes Shakespeare the most celebrated literary genius of all time. One of those elements is his characters’ ability to overhear themselves and gain self-awareness, and instead of simply reacting to events, to be proactive by exhibiting a freedom of choice from which they act.

Here’s an illustration from the play Hamlet. The eponymous hero has just come from a performance of The Murder of Gonzago, a play within a play that recreates the circumstances behind his father’s murder. When the murder scene happens, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius abruptly rises and leaves the room, and Hamlet is convinced of his uncle’s guilt based on his reaction to the play. Hamlet goes off to find his uncle and murder him, when he suddenly sees him deep in penitent prayer, asking forgiveness for what he has done.

Hamlet draws his dagger to kill him, which would be simply reactive based on his desire for revenge. However, he starts reasoning that if he were to kill his uncle right then and there, his uncle would be pardoned for the murder by having died in a state of penitence for what he had done. Hamlet sheathes his dagger and walks away, because he has overheard himself and reasoned that he does not want to create the unintended consequence of sending his uncle to Heaven by killing him at that moment, saying “Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge!” or as we would say today, giving his uncle a promotion rather than a punishment. In this space created by self-awareness, Hamlet is giving himself a freedom to choose and be proactive. This freedom to choose is what gives Hamlet the quality of being a fully-dimensional human being just like the audience, and they have responded to that echo of their own humanity throughout the ages by declaring Shakespeare the most celebrated of all literary geniuses. Why? Because his best characters are proactive, not reactive.

3. A Project Manager expands his Circle of Influence

One illustration that Covey has to emphasize the difference between reactive and proactive people is create the circle of influence which is the those items over which someone has a degree of control, either directly or indirectly. We can solve our own problems:

a) directly by changing our own habits directly (habits 1, 2, and 3),

b) indirectly by changing the habits of others (habits 4, 5, and 6), or

c) or for those we have no control over, by changing our attitude to one of acceptance.

Those that spend more of their mental energy on problems over which they have no control are reactive. They are either guilty about mistakes they have done in the past, or worry futilely about problems they may encounter in the future without doing anything to prepare. Those that are proactive try to expand their circle of influence, and a Project Manager does this in three ways:

Past Present Future
Proactive method Lessons learned Active listening/empathy Planning/risk response

For mistakes done in the past, a proactive project manager acknowledges the mistake, corrects it and puts it in the lessons learned for future projects. To avoid mistakes in the future, a proactive project manager plans and makes contingencies for deviations to the plan in the form of risk responses that can be made part of a risk register.

Then, to avoid mistakes being done by oneself and others in the present, you need to be an active listener to those in the team so that any concerns, even unexpressed ones, can be dealt with as quickly as possible.

If you follow these three methods of dealing with the past, present, and future, you will not only be a better project manager, but you will become a more responsible person.

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