Primary Greatness: The 12 Levers of Success

by Stephen R. Covey

This is a book about integrity and character. It is about leadership as well as personal development. “There’s no such thing as organizational behavior, only individual behavior… Leadership is communicating to another person their worth and potential so clearly they are inspired to see it in themselves… The common thread in the best thinking on management and leadership is this: People both want and need to feel that their lives and work have meaning.”

“Primary greatness is who you really are—your character, your integrity, your deepest motives and desires. Secondary greatness is popularity, title, position, fame, fortune, and honors… Going for secondary greatness without primary greatness doesn’t work. People don’t build successful lives on the unstable sands of what is outwardly or temporarily popular, but they do build successful lives on the bedrock of principles that do not change.”

“Character is foundational. All else builds on this cornerstone. Even the very best structure, system, style, and skills can’t compensate completely for deficiencies in character… People get lost when they use a local norm or internal standard to justify covert or corrupt business practices… Universal principles like respect, empathy, honesty, and trust ultimately govern.” 

Covey describes the 12 “levers” of successful people: integrity, contribution, priority, personal sacrifice, service, responsibility, loyalty, reciprocity, diversity, continuous learning, renewal, and teaching to learn.

The Lever of Integrity. “The ethics dilemma is analogous to the quality dilemma… You can’t add quality to a product after it is finished; rather, you have to design and build it from the beginning, seeing everything you do through the lens of quality. Likewise, you can’t inspect ethics. When everybody accepts personal responsibility to behave in ethical ways, you hardly have to think about it, because ethical behavior is your nature, not the responsibility of some artificial department down the hall.”

The Lever of Contribution. “Primary greatness is achieved by those who have a mission, a purpose to serve that is higher than themselves… ‘What does the world need from me? How can I contribute to the lives of others?’”

The Lever of Priority. “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities… One way to stay focused on the important is to plan your week before you plan your day.” Covey says that your life may be unbalanced in the short term. “The long run is where you go for balance.”

The Lever of Sacrifice. “Primary greatness depends on synergy—the miracle that happens when everyone contributes their best thinking and nobody cares about getting credit. Primary greatness depends on the principle that we are better together than alone, that no one person can do it all, and that no one ever made a worthwhile contribution all alone. Burdened by ‘hidden agendas,’ too many of us are unwilling to sacrifice a little pride or ambition to serve the good of the whole. Yet, it is a much easier way to go, and ultimately more profitable for everyone.”

The Lever of Service. “With people, the little things are the big things… They want to be called by name. They want to feel that the company representative really cares about them. That makes a huge difference; in fact, it’s often the deal maker or breaker.” Covey echoes Tom Peters when we writes, “The older I get, the more clearly I see the connection between the way employees are treated and how they treat customers. It’s a chain reaction.”

The Lever of Responsibility. “It’s easy to take responsibility for the good things in our lives, but the real test comes when things aren’t going well. Those who shrug off responsibility for their lives, blaming circumstances or other people for their situation, become professional victims. Those who practice primary greatness know that their quality of life depends on their own choices, not on the choices of others or even their circumstances.”

The Lever of Loyalty. “When you defend the integrity of a person who is absent, what does that say to those who are present? It says that you would do the same thing for them.”

The Lever of Reciprocity. “Those who believe in secondary greatness want to tip the scales of every human interaction in their favor—their motto is ‘WIFM’: What’s in it for me? By contrast, those who live by the principle of reciprocity know there is no win in life if others do not win too.”

“Setting up Win-Win Agreements with people and maintaining relationships of trust is not an efficient process… However, once trust is in place, the work will go faster… When dealing with people, slow is fast; fast is slow… If you go fast with people… you won’t hear what they’re really telling you. You won’t understand what a win is for them.” The author adds, “If you’re synergistic, combining your strength with theirs, you create far better solutions.”

The Lever of Diversity. “Many companies struggle as they adopt diversity programs because the leaders, while self-aware enough to know they need to be more diverse, make careless hiring and promotion decisions… You may get tokenism, or worse, a total bombshell where people aren’t prepared for key assignments. That which we desire most earnestly, we believe most easily. And if we desire diversity so earnestly that we grab it whenever and wherever we find it, we’ll have more divisiveness than synergy… There needs to be a real commonality on core issues, not just difference for differences sake.”

The Lever of Learning. “The principle of balance is key to continuous learning. I recommend a balance between personal and organizational development; between current job-related needs and future requirements… Your learning should balance theory with practice; arts with sciences… Security lies in the power to continually learn.”

The Lever of Renewal. “You can’t achieve primary greatness by neglecting yourself—your health, your mind, your emotional and spiritual life. Each of these vital areas of your life needs constant, even daily, renewal.”

The Lever of Teaching. “You simply learn better when you teach… You are far more motivated to learn something when you know you are responsible to teach it.” Covey adds, “Much of the money spent on training and development is wasted because participants come away with very little take-home value. Most learning evaporates overnight because few learners teach the material to a broader audience.”

Covey emphasizes having a “creative orientation, as opposed to a problem-solving orientation. When you are problem solving, you are trying to get rid of something. When you are in a creative mode, you are trying to bring something into being. You still have to solve problems, but you solve them with a different frame of mind, a different perspective, a larger context… Creativity is the essence of leadership.”

In closing, Covey says to “live your life in crescendo… It means that the most important work you will ever do is always ahead of you… Regardless of what you have or haven’t accomplished, you have important contributions to make. Avoid the temptation to keep looking in the rearview mirror… and instead look ahead with optimism.”

Steven R. Covey is most famous for his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He died July 16, 2012. This book is an assemblage of his writings, published posthumously.


Covey, Stephen R. Primary Greatness: The 12 Levers of Success. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. Buy from Amazon.com