The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Review)

Once a year, my employer encourages everyone who works there to read business books and write reviews of them in exchange for cash (up to $200). I’ve been there for nine years now, and read many books in that time, but had never read one particular classic of the self-help genre. In part because The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has been so influential, it almost seemed as if I had read it before. Concepts like the character ethic vs. the personality ethic, production vs. production capacity, and efficiency vs. effectiveness have all made their way into other books and articles, to say nothing of the seven habits themselves: 1) be proactive, 2) begin with the end in mind, 3) put first things first, 4) think win/win, 5) seek first to understand, then to be understood, 6) synergize, and 7) sharpen the saw.

This book is about as good as you can get within the confines of the self-help genre, which focuses on the means of “self improvement” or “effectiveness” and remains largely agnostic about ends other than a vague definition of “happiness” (Covey alludes to his personal faith from time to time but insists that his habits apply to anyone). You’ll get the most out of this book, or any book in this genre, if you already have a “why” to live for and are looking for a better “how.”

Earlier this year, I read Drew Dyck’s book Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science. It made me wish there were more books that transcend this limitation of the self-help genre: books that include some of the best wisdom and advice you get in mainstream self-help book but refuse to remain vague and/or agnostic about ultimate purposes and sources of meaning in life. Dyck read all the research on habit-forming, willpower, and self-control, but was clear throughout why we should pursue self control—to enable us to do what is right according to a Christian view of the world.

Now, I can see why a mainstream publisher would want to keep ultimate ends vague in order to reach the largest possible audience. But as an editor at Lexham Press, I think we have the potential to publish books that are a bit more specific regarding both the “why ” and the “how” of living a good life.

The Habits of Leading: A Review

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For about six months a couple of years ago, I was a regular listener of the Catalyst podcast. Catalyst is an organization that seeks to grow young leaders in business and the church through conferences. I had never been to a Catalyst conference, and I can’t even remember now how I became interested in the podcast. I was probably interested in hearing an interview with someone I had heard of.

At the time, the podcast was hosted by Ken Coleman and Brad Lomenick, the president of Catalyst. While leadership podcasts aren’t really my thing (they tend to be sources of encouragement rather than new information, which is what I’m more usually interested in from a podcast), I stuck around with Brad and Ken for a while because I liked their personalities.

Fast forward a couple of years. Lomenick had taken a sabbatical and decided to leave Catalyst. He has written a book (his second) on the habits of leading called H3 Leadership: Be Humble, Stay Hungry, Always Hustle. I had stopped listening to the podcast, but I was familiar with Lomenick and was up for something a little different than what I usually read, so I picked it up.

The book consists of 20 chapters, each of which brings out a habit of leadership. These 20 habits, like Conviction, Curiosity, Bravery, and Generosity, are categorized into three broad groups (the “humble, hungry, hustle” of the title). Each chapter consists of Brad describing the habit, telling a story or two to illustrate it, and various other leaders Brad knows sharing their brief thoughts on that habit.

This is an easy and a fun read. If you’ve read any books on leadership at all, the organization of the book will be new, but many of the concepts will not. It’s pretty straightforward stuff. But as with the Catalyst podcast, I’ve found most leadership literature to be more of a source of encouragement than new information. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Samuel Johnson said, “People need more often to be reminded than to be instructed.”

The only negative I came away with was the pull quotes on each page. Each one of them is prefaced by a little Twitter symbol, a not-so-subtle indication that this, dear reader, is both a good quote and within Twitter’s 140-character limit. I found that to be a little too much hand-holding. Readers will respect you more if you challenge them a bit. But that is more of a pet peeve of mine, and it is more the book designer’s fault than the authors. On a positive note, Lomenick’s tone is perfect for a leadership book. He strikes the right balance between authority and vulnerability. If you’re looking for a quick leadership read to keep you focused and motivated, this is a good one.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Good to Great: One of the Great Business Books

I don’t read a lot of business books, but at least I don’t sneer at them like I used to (progress!). Many of them are not great as literature, but I’ve come to believe that I can learn from almost any book, even if it’s just what not to do.

Over time I’ve come to realize that, like all areas of literature, there are a few business “classics.” Jim Collins’ book Good to Great is one of them. This year, I decided it was time to see what the fuss was about. The book, which was originally published in 2001, grew out of a previous book, Built to Last. In response to that book, someone asked Collins what he could do if he was not part of a company that was great from the beginning. Could it become great? In response, Collins and his research team studied a group of companies that had initially been average but had then transitioned into sustained greatness. These companies had the following characteristics:

  • Level 5 Leaders (who paradoxically possessed personal humility combined with extraordinary professional will)
  • They focused on getting the right people on the bus (and in the right places) before figuring out where to drive it
  • They embraced the Stockdale Paradox: they were completely honest about the brutal facts of their present situation while remaining confident that they would prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulty
  • They discovered their Hedgehog Concept, the “one big thing” at the core of their business, and stuck to it single-mindedly (this was found at the intersection of what they were deeply passionate about, what they could be the best in the world at, and what drove their economic engine)
  • They had a culture of disciplined people who engaged in disciplined thought and took disciplined action (in contrast to bureaucratic levels of external discipline)
  • They used technology, but avoided short-lived fads; they only used technology to help them in their Hedgehog Concept
  • Their buildup and breakthrough came incrementally by pushing on their core business like a gigantic flywheel

As you can see, Collins has a gift for presenting the results of his research in a memorable way (note how most of the key characteristics above conjure up mental images).

Reading the book in 2015, it could be easy to dismiss Collins’ work based on the subsequent poor performance of several of the companies he profiles (Circuit City and Fannie Mae being the most obvious examples). And if you read the book’s lower-rated Amazon reviews, you’ll find that many have. But Collins is clear in the book that these great companies could cease being great at any time if they became arrogant and stopped practicing the things that made them great, thinking that their success was inevitable. That may seem like cold comfort, but I actually don’t mind. The things that Collins calls attention to are both simple to describe and exceedingly difficult to sustain. It makes sense that success would lead to complacency without an extraordinary amount of humility and discipline.

As a side note, I read part of this book in the hardcover edition and listened to part of it as an audiobook. I’d highly recommend the audiobook; it’s read by the author a few years after the book came out, and he occasionally gives updates on some of the things in the book and responds to feedback he has received.

How to Get Things Done for God’s Glory: A Review

Once upon a time, I had no interest in reading books about getting things done. I had enough time, or at least close to enough time, to do the things I wanted to do. But as the amount of things I want to do has grown (and my capacity for doing them has not), I’ve looked for help. There is a whole host of books about productivity, with Getting Things Done by David Allen at the top of the list.

I have found that book, and others like it, to be helpful. But they are usually for general audiences, and I have had to translate them into a language that I can use as a Christian. What’s Best Next, by Matt Perman, the former director of strategy for Desiring God ( begun by John Piper), is the book that I was looking for without even realizing it: a book on productivity that approaches it not merely to do more, but from the angle of getting things done for the glory of God.

When I got this book in the mail, I was surprised at how thick it was. The book comes in seven parts. Part one is what sets this book apart; it asks what it looks like to make God supreme in our productivity. In part two, Perman introduces his own productivity system, which he calls Gospel-Driven Productivity. This system consists of four steps, which Perman details in the next four parts: Define, Architect, Reduce, and Execute (DARE). In part seven, Perman includes two chapters on living this out.

I enjoyed much of this book. I appreciated Perman’s desire to adapt productivity literature for a Christian audience, and it was clear that he had spent a lot of time thinking about productivity. I am certain that  I will start to implement some of Perman’s advice in my own life. There are just two negative things about the book for me. I already alluded to the first: its length. This is Perman’s first book, and I think he fell into the trap that many first-time authors fall into, which is trying to say everything they know about a subject. There’s a lot of good information here, but it could have been much shorter.

The second minor quibble came in the second to last chapter, “Productivity in Organizations and Society.” Perman urges his readers to take an interest in economics because it has to do with people’s structural context. This is a good thing, in my opinion. However, Perman then recommends that his readers learn about economics by reading books by Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek, who are all representatives of the neoliberal school of economics. Now, I am not saying that people should not read these guys. They absolutely should. But, the last four decades or so in the United States notwithstanding, neoliberal economic thought is not the same as Christian economic thought. There is a robust and longstanding discussion among Christians about how to think about economics, and Perman does his readers a disservice when he intimates that there is no such discussion.

Maybe it seems like I’m being too hard on Perman here, and I’ll admit that oversimplification is one of my pet peeves. When you are teaching someone about a new subject, you must not overwhelm them with details, but you must also not oversimplify. Perman would have done better to recommend a text on economics that deals with recent debates (one example is Lawrence White’s The Clash of Economic Ideas). Also, neither Friedman, nor Hayek, nor Sowell write from a Christian perspective. Now, I’m a believer in common grace, so that is no reason to dismiss their writings outright. And Perman does also recommend a book called Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics. But Perman could have served his readers better by also recommending texts from a variety of Christian perspectives. He could have even recommended a text that details Christian diversity of opinion, like Craig Gay’s With Liberty and Justice for Whom? (which deals specifically with the evangelical debate over capitalism)

Those minor difficulties aside, I would recommend this book to any person who is looking to get things done, and who wants to get them done for God’s glory. I give it 4.5 stars.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review. Also, for a limited time, the ebook version of Perman’s book is on sale.

Tales from the Amazon: A Review

Everyone who uses the Internet has heard of Amazon, a business that since its small Seattle beginnings has had the audacious goal of selling virtually everything it is possible to buy. However, not everyone is familiar with the story of how it grew to what it is today. Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon is a fascinating look at Amazon and its founder, moving from Bezos’s childhood, to his work at D. E. Shaw in New York, to the present day (actually fall 2013, so it doesn’t discuss the Fire TV or the Fire Phone).

Perhaps what I found most interesting about the book was its presentation of the genealogy of some of Amazon’s cultural practices. For example:

  • Bezos has long admired Walmart founder Sam Walton, and incorporated Walmart’s values of frugality and a bias for action into Amazon’s own corporate values.
  • Bezos decided to have Amazon match their competitors’ lowest prices after meeting with Costco founder Jim Sinegal in 2001 (125).
  • Drawing on the concept of a virtuous cycle from Jim Collins’s Good to Great, Amazon sketched out its own version: “Lower prices led to more customer visits. More customers increased the volume of sales and attracted more commission-paying third-party sellers to the site. That allowed Amazon to get more out of fixed costs like the fulfillment centers and the servers needed to run the website. This greater efficiency then enabled it to lower prices further” (126).
  • Amazon’s embracing of disrupting technology in its development of the Kindle and Amazon Web Services can be traced to the influence of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma.
  • Bezos believes using slide presentations in meetings can conceal lazy thinking, so Amazon employees present their ideas using six-page prose narratives rather than PowerPoint. New features and products have to be written up in mock press releases, ensuring that they are customer-focused (175-76).

The book’s depiction of Amazon is not entirely positive. Especially in later chapters, it delves into the company’s tactics for gaining market share and forcing recalcitrant publishers to cooperate (e.g., “Amazon had an easy way to demonstrate its market power. When a publisher did not capitulate and the company shut off the recommendation algorithms for its books, the publisher’s sales usually fell by as much as 40 percent,” 243). Most of the book’s main subjects are still living and heavily invested in the company, so it is not surprising that it has been criticized—see the negative reviews by MacKenzie Bezos (Jeff’s wife) and Rick Dalzell (former Chief Information Officer at Amazon). On the other hand, Shel Kaphan, Amazon’s first employee, has reviewed it positively. I don’t envy the task Stone carved out for himself: it’s hard to tell the story of a company that is still at the height of its influence, and I suppose the full story will have to await the day that Bezos wants to tell it himself or authorize someone to do it. But I’m glad Stone decided to tell the story now, however incomplete it may turn out to be in retrospect.

In the future, it will be interesting to see how Amazon balances its power with its customer focus. On the one hand, its hardball tactics with suppliers and competitors are usually explained as being in the interest of lowering prices, which are ostensibly for the benefit of customers. But on the other hand, while customers may like convenience and low prices, people often like to see themselves as righteous. In other words, people are not always ideal customers—self-interested actors who go for the low price every time. The more sinister the public perception of Amazon becomes, the harder it may be for people to do business with them in good conscience. How that actually affects Amazon’s bottom line (or not) remains to be seen.

My Boss Is a Jewish Carpenter: A Review

Since 1989, Tim Keller has been pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Many people in his congregation have questions about how their faith and work can coexist. This book, co-written with Katherine Leary Alsdorf, the head of Redeemer’s Center for Faith and Work, is his response to their questions.

The book comes in three parts: in the first, he writes about how God intended work to be from the beginning. In the second, he deals with the problems we have with work in a fallen world. In the third, he lays out the different effects the gospel has on work: it fits work into a different story, it gives us a new understanding of what we are doing when we work, it gives us a different set of ethics to apply at work, and it gives us new energy for work.

As is typical with Keller, he draws on a wide variety of sources to make his arguments and illustrate his points, like jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, theologians John Calvin and Martin Luther, and philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre, Luc Ferry, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Some of Keller’s favorites are early 20th century British writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers, and they make several appearances as well.

When many people think about work, they think about the business world. I know my thoughts tend to move in that direction, since that is the world I live in now. But this book is about work in general, and does not focus explicitly on business. However, Keller does give several business-related examples and illustrations. He gives a sketch of a few ways the gospel might influence business in the chapter “A New Story for Work,” which I think is worth quoting in part:

While from the outside there might not be immediately noticeable differences between a well-run company reflecting a gospel worldview and one reflecting primarily the world-story of the marketplace, inside the differences could be very noticeable. The gospel-centered business would have a discernible vision for serving the customer in some unique way, a lack of adversarial relationships and exploitation, an extremely strong emphasis on excellence and product quality, and an ethical environment that goes ‘all the way down’ to the bottom of the organizational chart and to the realities of daily behavior, even when high ethics mean a loss of margin. In the business animated by the gospel worldview, profit is simply one of many important bottom lines (167–68).

Every Good Endeavor is a theologically robust reflection on the nature and purpose of work from someone who has spent a lot of time reflecting on it. It corrects many misunderstandings about work and gives a positive vision for what it can be. I recommend it highly.

You’ve Got to Draw the Line Somewhere: A Review

Henry Cloud is the coauthor of the perennial psychology bestseller Boundaries, which has spawned a series of other books (Boundaries in Dating, Boundaries with Kids, Beyond Boundaries… I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we get Boundaries for Grandparents, Boundaries with Siblings, The Return of Boundaries, Boundaries Strike Back, Boundaries: First Blood, Part 2, etc.). The latest in this series is Boundaries for Leaders.

In his solo books, Cloud tends to focus on the psychology of business and leadership, drawing on his experiences as a consultant. This book is Cloud’s plea for leaders to foster the kind of culture that enables their people’s brains to work optimally, using the three “executive functions” of the brain: attention to what is relevant, inhibition of what is distracting, and the working memory to always stay aware of relevant information.

The boundaries Cloud writes about for the bulk of the book have to do with setting the right emotional tone, staying connected, reducing negativity, focusing on things that can be controlled, creating the right values, and fostering an environment of trust. At the end, he writes about the leader creating boundaries for him- or herself.

For the most part, these boundaries seemed obvious. Of course people need to be in a good place emotionally if they are going to be a positive contributor. Of course people need to focus on what they can control rather than wring their hands over what they can’t. Of course people need to stay connected if they want to accomplish anything. Of course nothing good is going to happen in a culture of mistrust. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I subscribe to Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”

But this book isn’t just a restatement of the obvious. Cloud’s major contributions are that he roots his insights in neuroscience, and he makes creating the right kind of culture the responsibility of the leader. That’s the “ridiculously in charge” of the subtitle. Leaders, Cloud says many places throughout the book, get what they create and what they allow. It’s a heavy responsibility, but one that leaders everywhere need to be reminded of.

Note: Thanks to HarperBusiness for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.