Tyrion Lannister and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
A Game of Thrones-themed synopsis of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a staple amongst the productivity genre of self-help books. It was written over 30 years ago, yet it remains a best seller, often handed out at offsites or during company onboardings. The key to its success is not just the raw content, but the framework that Stephen uses to present the information:
- Habit 1: Be proactive
- Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind
- Habit 3: Put first things first
- Habit 4: Think win-win
- Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood
- Habit 6: Synergize
- Habit 7: Sharpen the saw
The habits flow from one to the next. The first three are about taking responsibility and aligning your life to achieve your goals. The next three are about effectively working with other people. And the final habit is about the sustainability of your life in pursuit of those goals.
While this framework is great, I read this book ten years ago, and I struggle to remember all seven habits.
You know what I can remember? Vivid details from Game of Thrones, and I first read that book over 15 years ago. If you are the type of person that can remember half the episodes of The Office but struggle to remember a self-help book, then this post is for you.
My intent with this post is to use Tyrion Lannister as a mnemonic device to help you to better remember the seven habits.
If you haven’t read or watched Game of Thrones, I don’t recommend reading this post, as there are spoilers ahead. With that being said, here’s a brief reminder of who Tyrion is.
Tyrion is the youngest son of the richest man in a war-torn land. As a dwarf, he is dismissed and disdained by a world that values physical prowess over mental acuity (which is Tyrion’s greatest strength). Tyrion is a well-written, flawed character whose proclivity for drink and biting wit made him a fan favorite among the Game of Thrones audience. As an imperfect character, he has many ineffective moments in which not employing the seven habits drives him to ruin. However, in his best moments, there are many parallels between what he does and what Stephen Covey is trying to express.
Habit 1: Be proactive — Tyrion, Mord, and the Sky Cells
“Habit 1 is about taking responsibility for your life. Proactive people recognize that they are ‘response-able.’ They don’t blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behaviour. They know they can choose their behaviour. Reactive people, on the other hand, are often affected by their physical environment. They find external sources to blame for their behaviour. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and performance, and they blame the weather.”
Being proactive is the foundation upon which the other habits rely. The dictionary definition of being proactive is taking action to control your future, but Stephen Covey uses it to mean that you are responsible for your actions and not a victim of other people’s actions. He’s not focused on your ability to control the outcome but rather on your ability to control yourself. Reactive people think in the opposite way, always blaming their circumstances or others for their poor behavior.
Let’s look at some cases in which Tyrion was both proactive and reactive.
Early on in the books, Tyrion was captured and thrown into the sky cells in the Eyrie. Tyrion could have sat and waited for his brother to come rescue him (which multiple people suggested), but instead, he chose to proactively secure his own freedom. Even when his jailor, Mord, beat him, he refused to let Mord control his response. In the TV series, viewers watch as Tyrion works hard to maintain his composure and stay in control of his responses.
Have you ever witnessed a situation at work where one person gets frustrated and raises their voice, and then someone else matches their tone, and the situation escalates? Eventually, things devolve, and no one walks away happy. Imagine how different it would be if they had acted like Tyrion with Mord. Throughout my career, I’ve often coached people on finding the “reasonable response to an unreasonable situation.” This is Tyrion in a nutshell.
Now, Tyrion doesn’t always act this way — it was not acting this way that led to his initial downfall. In particular, Tyrion’s family was able to elicit a reactive (non-proactive) response. Joffrey (his nephew) could easily provoke a reaction out of Tyrion. Those reactions led to his being jailed and sentenced to death. It is difficult to remain in control with people you have a history with, which is why family get-togethers can be so stressful. This is probably why Vars and Littlefinger were so much more effective than Tyrion, when it came to Joffrey.
When trying to avoid reactive behavior, picture Tyrion reacting to Joffrey. It ruined his life, and reactive behavior can ruin yours. Don’t allow someone else’s actions to control your behavior.
When thinking of proactive behavior, picture Tyrion escaping the Sky Cells. When presented with a difficult situation, take control and create the future you want — ideally, one where you survive to fight another day.
Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind — defending King’s Landing
“Habit 2 is the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint.”
Stephen Covey’s habits all build upon one another. Proactive people have the drive to seek improvement, and the second habit (begin with the end in mind) ensures that one’s energy is focused on a goal. Without a goal, you are likely to be aimless and unsuccessful. While this sounds straightforward, many people do not start with an end goal in mind, and their hard work never creates the future they want. Once you’ve set an end goal, the next steps are to create a plan (mental creation) and then execute it (physical creation).
For the second habit, the best metaphor is the defense of King’s Landing, also known as the battle of the Blackwater. Tyrion proactively took it upon himself to lead the defense of the city (despite constant hindrances from Joffrey and Cersei). Let’s view this from the angle of the second habit:
Tyrion’s Goal: Don’t die. This was a simple goal, but very motivational. If the professional world had the same stakes, I think we’d find it much easier to create alignment across teams. Hmm…
Tyrion’s Plan: Find a way to defend against vastly superior numbers. Once Tyrion set his goal, he needed a plan that negated Stannis’ superior numbers. Tyrion poured over maps, debated with Varys, and conspired with the pyromancers. He determined where Stannis would attack and how he would compete against superior forces: setting the river on fire (the wildfire explosion).
Execution: Don your armor. Finally, the reader’s favorite part — the battle itself.
The second habit is not complicated. Being proactive without a goal isn’t going to win the war. Having a goal but no plan won’t help you overcome your enemies. And having a plan that you can’t execute is likely a sign of insanity. To apply the second habit in your life, picture Tyrion trying to stay alive (the goal), pouring over maps (the plan), and fighting on the beach (the execution). Find your King’s Landing and defend it.
Habit 3: Put first things first — Tyrion and Pycelle
“Habit 3 is the exercise of independent will toward becoming principle-centered. Habit 3 is the practical fulfillment of Habits 1 and 2. Habit 1 says, ‘You are the creator. You are in charge.’ Habit 2 is the first mental creation, based on imagination, the ability to envision what you can become. Habit 3 is the second creation, the physical creation.”
Proactive people (habit 1) start by choosing a goal (habit 2), and habit 3 is about taking your first steps. I’ve worked with leads who were proactive and knew their goals but poorly prioritized their time — exactly like Ned Stark. He swept into King’s Landing and immediately began making waves. He didn’t prioritize cultivating a solid base and, in the end, was betrayed by the city guard, the small council, and the King. He tried to take a shortcut, and his neck was cut short as a result.
In the early books, Tyrion is wavers between being both effective and ineffective. There were two key moments when he became Hand of the King in which he demonstrated he was a keen believer in the fourth habit of putting first things first.
(1) Tyrion replaced the commander of the city guard.
Tyrion knew that Ned (the former hand of the King) had been betrayed by the commander of the city guard. This betrayal came at a crucial moment and was primarily the reason Ned died. Ned entirely skipped gaining the allegiance of the city guard and assumed that they would follow him because of their morals. While Ned was exceptionally proactive (habit 1), he entirely failed at habits 2 and 3: having a plan and executing it in the correct order.
Tyrion was much more thoughtful, and he replaced the commander with Bronn, his (mostly) loyal mercenary companion. The theatrics of the event were great because the audience had no reason to expect this outcome (as the commander had not done anything against Tyrion). Tyrion was proactively fixing the most important problems first.
(2) Tyrion identified loyalties amongst the small council.
Tyrion planted information about a “secret plan” with three other members of the small council. The rumor was something that his arch-rival (Cersei) would be interested in, but each of the three had a slightly different version of the same rumor. When Cersei confronted him about the rumor, Tyrion immediately knew which council member was the source of the leak. I absolutely loved watching this play out — it was brilliant writing. It was also a perfect example of putting first things first.
This was probably the most brilliant maneuver Tyrion ever made, and he followed it up with a blunder that nearly ruined him. Tyrion’s emotions got the better of him (thanks to his toxic family), and he failed to utilize habit 2. Tyrion reacted by throwing Pycelle in prison instead of using him as a known spy. Knowing that Pycelle was the leak, Tyrion could have fed him information to mislead Cersei. He wasn’t thinking about his end goals in this case but rather letting himself be reactive.
Mental image: Be like Tyrion with the commander of the city guard and the small council. Do first things first, lest you get beheaded like Ned.
Habit 4: Think win-win — Tyrion and Shagga
“Habit 4 is about seeing life as a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. Win-win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win-win means agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial and satisfying. We both get to eat the pie, and it tastes pretty darn good!”
A win-win situation is one in which you seek out solutions that allow both parties to get ahead. People often view situations as a zero-sum game: one party wins, and one party loses. Stephen Covey disagrees with this mindset and instead challenges you to do better.
What better example is there of a win-win situation than when Tyrion convinces the hill tribes to fight for him? Tyrion had just escaped from the Eyrie, accompanied by Bronn. The Hill Tribes ambushed them (led by Shagga), yet Tyrion turned the tables. He didn’t just bribe them to let him live; he also convinced them to join him as his personal vanguard. The tribesman got the weapons and plunder they wanted, and Tyrion got his own mini-army.
The best example of a win-win I’ve seen in a professional environment was between a product team and my team (the platform team). The product team wanted more features, but my team didn’t have the bandwidth. Instead of fighting, the product team reprioritized its recruiting to hire more platform team members. At the time, this blew my mind. I was fully prepared for a fight, but instead, I got a larger team, and the platform team got its features.
Mental image: When in a conflict at work, picture Tyrion and Shagga and think, “how can I create a win-win situation?”
Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood — Tyrion and the Night’s Watch
“Habit 5 is about how most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. Consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before they finish communicating.”
One of the things that made Tyrion so formidable (even given his stature) was his willingness to seek understanding. When I think “seek first to understand,” I visualize Tyrion heading north to the wall in the very beginning of the books/show. He wanted to see for himself what the Night’s Watch was all about. He spent time talking to Mormont, Aemon, Benjen, and Jon Snow, all in his quest for understanding. He didn’t try and push an agenda on them or make changes; he was simply there to understand.
He used his experience with Mormont to establish trust with his son, Jorah Mormant. Later, he used his experience with Jon Snow to provide advice to Daenerys. My point is that Tyrion sought knowledge and understanding first, and it paid off down the road.
I strongly agree with Stephen Covey’s fifth habit, and I think it is the most important. People constantly fail to seek understanding, and in debates, they are just waiting for their chance to speak. I’m absolutely guilty of this. In my experience, the vast majority of conflicts could have been avoided if both parties sought understanding instead of trying to push their own agendas.
When you are in a tough situation at work, ask yourself: have you walked the wall like Tyrion, or are you at home in King’s Landing casting judgment from afar?
Habit 6: Synergize — Tyrion and Bronn
“Habit 6 is the habit of creative cooperation. It is teamwork, open-mindedness, and the adventure of finding new solutions to old problems. But it doesn’t happen on its own. It’s a process, and through that process, people bring all their personal experience and expertise to the table.”
In a synergy, you aren’t looking for someone who is the polar opposite of you but rather someone who complements your weaknesses while also adding to your most critical strengths. Throughout the books, George R. Martin repeatedly wove characters together and demonstrated the power of synergy. Examples of these synergistic pairs include
- Jamie Lannister and Brienne of Tarth,
- Stannis Baratheon and Davos Seaworth,
- Hodor and Bran Stark,
- Jon Snow and Tormund,
- Arya Stark and The Hound, and
- Tyrion and Bronn.
Let’s focus on Tyrion and Bronn, as they are an example of a synergy that Tyrion created in order to advance his career aspirations. Tyrion was well-read, smart, and quick with politics, money, and strategy. However, his physical stature made him a liability in combat. His synergistic pairing was with Bronn. Bronn was a ruthless warrior, far more interested in winning than in being honorable (which suited Tyrion just fine). With Bronn at his back, Tyrion was able to brazenly walk into risky situations that otherwise would have proven fatal for him.
In a professional setting, it’s easy to hire people who have the same skills as you instead of hiring against your weaknesses. I think this is because humans have a tendency to artificially inflate other people’s worth if they share our traits or values. However, when building a team, you need to think about your strengths and weaknesses, especially as they relate to problems you are facing.
Mental image: Do you have a Bronn who balances out your shortcomings?
Habit 7: Sharpen the saw — Tyrion and Shai
“Habit 7 is about preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have: you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.”
What restorative activities did Tyrion seek outside his role that made him effective?
If you hadn’t guessed already, the obvious metaphor for habit 7 would be Shae and Tyrion’s relationship. Tyrion fought most of his battles with his mind (mental), meaning that his restoration needed to be in the physical and emotional arenas. Without going into details, let’s just say that Shae was what Tyrion needed to balance out the rest of his life.
The point is that everyone needs a counterbalance in their life that enables them to bring their best self to work. Early in my career, I was a workaholic, and I threw more and more hours into my job. Because so much of my mental stability was wrapped up in my work, conflicts at work would eat away at me. I struggled to maintain the other six habits in my daily behavior because I was mentally drained at all times.
My advice for everyone, regardless of where you are in your career, is this: find something outside of work that you can become truly passionate about. It could be a partner, a pet, competitive drag racing — anything that is not your job. You will find it infinitely easier to let go of things at work and remain cool and collected in the face of unreasonable situations.
Mental image: Find your Shae.
Both the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Game of Thrones are classic books for a reason. Stephen Covey’s book imparts wisdom, and George R. R. Martin’s book is highly memorable. The combination of the two would be a memorable book of wisdom.
This blog post is basically the spark-notes for that book:
- Be proactive: Don’t be like Tyrion with Joffrey, allowing others to control your actions.
- Begin with the end in mind: What is the “King’s Landing” in your work life that you need to defend?
- Put first things first: Be like Tyrion with the small council, rooting out the traitors before they could betray him.
- Win-win: Stop thinking of situations as win-lose — get Shagga to work for you.
- Seek first to understand: Walk the “wall” before making decisions.
- Synergize: Compliment your weaknesses with a Bronn.
- Sharpen the saw: What is your Shae? How do you rejuvenate your mind and your body?
If you enjoyed reading this post, let me know. If there’s a popular book that you think could make a better metaphor, drop it in the comments!