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The 8th Habit by Stephen R. Covey.
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In The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, Stephen R. Covey adds a habit to the original seven described in his best seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s 8th habit is to determine your unique contribution and help others do the same. This is the habit of leadership. According to Covey, great leaders work on themselves first, making sure they’re balanced, well-rounded human beings before they try to influence others.

Covey, who died in 2012, was a business and leadership consultant and an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most of Covey’s work reconfigures religious advice on meaningful, productive living for a secular audience. His most famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), focused on the importance of character development in professional productivity, successfully merging the business and self-help genres. In First Things First (1994), he extended 7 Habits by providing more concrete advice on time management.

The 8th Habit, published in 2004, marked a shift in Covey’s focus from the individual level to the bigger picture of organizations and leadership. Covey argues that to meet the needs of modern staff in contemporary workplaces, leaders need to revolutionize the way they lead. Instead of focusing primarily on processes and products, the best leaders of the future will focus on individual people, and on helping them fulfill their potential by identifying their “voice”—their unique contributions—and sharing them with the world.

Covey’s concept of “voice” encompasses all parts of the human being (body, mind, heart, and spirit). He examines how to identify this unique contribution at several levels: as individuals (Part 1 of this guide); organizations (Part 2); and leaders, who serve as the bridge between individuals and organizations (Part 3).

The Stages of Human Social Development

To add historical context to his discussion of leadership and organizations, Covey steps back and examines the progress of human civilization to date. He states that we’ve advanced through four broad stages:

  1. The Hunter/Gatherer Age
  2. The Agricultural Age
  3. The Industrial Age
  4. The Information Age

Moving between these stages has involved massive upheavals in how we understand the concept of work.

Ecological-Evolutionary Theory and Human Social Development

The classification system that Covey uses is based on the work of sociologist Gerhard Lenski, who began publishing on “ecological-evolutionary theory” in the 1960s. Lenski categorized human societies according to two factors: their environment, and their technological capabilities. His classification system listed seven types of societies: hunters and gatherers, horticulturalists, fishing societies, herding societies, maritime societies, agricultural societies, and industrial societies. While Lenski’s ideas are often used to argue that more complex societies are morally superior, this wasn’t his intention—rather, he argued that societies that develop new technologies quickly tend to outcompete societies that are slower to do this.

Covey refers to the transition points between these four stages as paradigm shifts. We use paradigms—sets of beliefs and attitudes that shape how we look at the world—to explain complex problems to ourselves and each other. For example, a key paradigm shift in astronomy was the Copernican Revolution—when scientists moved from a geocentric understanding of the solar system (Earth as the center of the universe) to a heliocentric one (the sun as the center).

(Shortform note: Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn discussed paradigm shifts in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, popularizing the term. Kuhn pointed out that while paradigms help scientists solve certain kinds of problems, they also trap scientific thinking inside a particular framework, meaning that solutions to other problems remain out of reach. This also applies to Covey’s discussion of workplace and management paradigms.)

Each of the paradigm shifts between these four stages forced...

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The 8th Habit Summary Part 1: The Individual

Covey first explores how to apply the 8th habit on an individual level. He suggests that we replace old work paradigms with a “whole-person paradigm.” Under this paradigm, people aren’t only bodies (as in the Industrial Age) or only minds (as in the Information Age). Instead, they’re complete individuals with physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. (Shortform note: Covey first introduced this way of thinking about human needs in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which was published 15 years before The 8th Habit.)

Covey sees individuals as made up of four parts. Healthy people consciously develop the capacities of all four parts, and their contribution springs from the unique way in which they combine and express them. Each of the parts corresponds with a basic human need, as well as with a specific type of intelligence:

  • The body is associated with our need for survival. Covey calls body-based intelligence “discipline”—we’ll call it “self-control.” Self-control is the ability to see things as they really are and to work to bring goals...

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The 8th Habit Summary Part 2: The Organization

Next, Covey addresses how organizations can use the 8th habit to thrive. He sees organizations as consisting of four main components that align with the individual’s body, mind, heart, and spirit.

The Four Components of Organizations

Covey maps his model of individual human beings onto organizations as follows:

  • The body of an organization consists of its physical and economic components: its buildings and physical environments, cash inflows and outflows, raw materials, and products.
  • The mind of an organization is its ability to strategize and set a path for the future.
  • The heart of an organization is the people and human relationships within it.
  • The spirit of an organization is its moral compass and internal accountability structures, including its mission and the way it allocates responsibilities across teams and individuals.

By looking at each of these components separately, Covey says we can diagnose and treat many of the common problems that organizations face. For example, a lack of enthusiasm and emotional investment from employees is caused by neglecting the heart of the organization and can be remedied through empowering leadership (the role of...

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The 8th Habit Summary Part 3: The Leader

Finally, Covey focuses on how the 8th habit applies to leaders, who serve as the bridge between individuals and organizations. According to Covey, leaders in the Age of Wisdom should focus on cultivating self-control, focus, dedication, and integrity within their organizations. Instead of issuing orders from above, they should encourage team members to develop these four intelligences within themselves, thereby nurturing the team members’ own unique contributions.

(Shortform note: This focus on self-work is typical of Covey, who espouses an approach to leadership based on character rather than personality. This approach has gained popularity since Covey’s death, with research increasingly focusing on “self-leadership” or “worthy leadership.” The Worthy Leadership model, for example, has three main facets: capacity, commitment, and character.)

To do this effectively, leaders also need to develop these...

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The 8th Habit Summary Conclusion: Service Leadership

Covey emphasizes that Habit 8 is underpinned by the idea of service. When practicing Habit 8, you serve others through your unique contribution and by helping others make theirs. On an individual level, personal growth and a service orientation create a virtuous cycle: Character-oriented personal growth naturally leads to an increased focus on service, while a service mindset cultivates humility and personal growth. On an interpersonal level, a service mindset improves and strengthens relationships. And on a collective level, the purpose of all organizations is to serve the community in some way.

In the Age of Wisdom, business organizations and their leaders will be guided by the principle of “service above self.” In doing...

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Shortform Exercise: Work With Your Leadership Strengths and Weaknesses

Determine which leadership roles you naturally gravitate toward and which roles you need more support in. Remember, Covey describes four key leadership roles:

  • The Auditor (in charge of processes, goals, and lining up dreams with realities)
  • The Navigator (in charge of listening, synthesizing different views, and plotting a course forward)
  • The Advocate (in charge of promoting independence among team members)
  • The Captain (in charge of understanding and communicating the big picture and setting an example for others)


Which of these roles are you most drawn to? Why?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Part 1: The Individual
  • Part 2: The Organization
  • Part 3: The Leader
  • Conclusion: Service Leadership
  • Exercise: Work With Your Leadership Strengths and Weaknesses