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Principle-Centered Leadership
by Stephen R. Covey

Sharpen the Saw

Significant, sustainable quality must ultimately be generated inside-out

Process improvement is important; but ultimately, the long-term effectiveness of any organization lies in its people improvement. If people are committed to personal quality, innovation and continuous improvement, they are more likely to contribute their maximum potential to organizational quality objectives. So how are you improving your process to improve your people?

A blue-collar employee told how he was afraid to let his employer know that he had a significant adult learning disorder for fear that his career advancement might be jeopardized. However, when a middle manager surfaced the problem in a professional development review (not a performance appraisal), the employee expressed fear that nothing could be done based on many past fruitless efforts.

Nevertheless, the organization creatively marshaled unique resources to help this individual. A few years later, he stood before an audience of several thousand people to express his deep loyalty and appreciation to his organization for the support he had received in meeting this challenge.

The same principles that govern our personal quality performance also lead to increased professional and organizational effectiveness. For instance, what if your organization systemically encouraged everyone to sharpen the saw -- to practice habit seven of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? The name comes from the story of a woodcutter charged to cut a huge amount of timber, working hard from dawn to dusk at his task -- but never getting past the first tree. When asked by a passerby who observes the woodcutter wearing himself out with no apparent progress, "Why don't you sharpen the saw?" he replies with determination, "I can't -- too busy sawing."

This habit represents the requirement to continuously improve our production capability. A simple but powerful quality principle is often violated: If we want higher performance results, then we must develop and renew the necessary resources for increased performance capability.

Personal continuous improvement means sharpening the saw in each of four interdependent dimensions we all share as human beings. They represent our capacities to achieve whatever goals we seek:

nPhysical -- Too many of us still maintain unhealthy diets and other habits, lack sufficient exercise, and fail to receive sufficient rest and true relaxation. This triad of diet, exercise and rest constitute the pillars not only of physical health but also contribute to our well-being in the other three dimensions. Good health is largely within our control: Up to 80 percent of illness and disease is directly attributable to lifestyle choices. What are your choices?

n   Mental -- It is astounding that at least 30 percent of teenage and adult Americans are functionally illiterate. The U.S. education system is under fire for continuing ineffectiveness. More directly, what do you do to keep yourself growing intellectually? What are you creating? How can a company or institution become a learning organization unless the people within it become learning individuals?

nSocial-emotional -- Our emotional well-being ties directly to our relationships with others. It is virtually impossible to grow strong, healthy relationships with family and friends if you don't develop a strong, healthy relationship with yourself. How much time and energy do you spend focusing on the relationships you have with significant others in your life?

nSpiritual -- Human beings throughout history have manifested a powerful drive to make their life matter, to contribute something of worth to others. People seek meaning, significance, importance and inspiration in their lives through many approaches: spending time in nature; reading sacred or inspirational literature; listening to edifying music; meditation or prayer; rendering anonymous or charitable service; participation in the arts; religious observances; and other ways. Without developing this spiritual side of our nature, we omit an essential quality of our life that brings the quality to life. How are you growing spiritually?

While there is no single golden key to turn the lock and swing wide the door to sustainable organizational excellence, applying a fundamental principle is core to long-term success: significant, sustainable quality must ultimately be generated inside-out. How are you improving your process for improving your people? When people live the principles of continuous improvement in their personal lives, they will more likely apply them in their organizations.


About the authors . . .

Stephen R. Covey is chairman of the Covey Leadership Center and author of Principle-Centered Leadership and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Keith A. Gulledge is vice president and senior consultant with Covey Leadership Center's Professional Resource Group.

© 1995 Covey Leadership Center. For more information, telephone (800) 553-8889.