In his work and writings, Erich Fromm has observed that self-alienation is largely a fruit of how oriented we are to the human personality market, to selling ourselves to others.

He notes: “Today we come across an individual who behaves like an automaton, who does not know or understand himself, and the only person that he knows is the person that he is supposed to be, whose meaningless chatter has replaced communicative speech, whose synthetic smile has replaced genuine laughter, and whose sense of dull despair has taken the place of genuine pain.”

Positive personality traits, while often essential for success, Stephen Covey believes, constitute secondary greatness. “To focus on personality before character is to try to grow leaves without its roots.”

He further elucidates that if we consistently use personality techniques and skills to enhance our social interactions, we may truncate the vital character base. “We cannot have the fruits without the roots. Private victory precedes public victory.” Self-mastery and self-discipline are the roots of good relationships with others.

If we use human influence strategies and tactics to get other people to do what we want, we may succeed in the short-term; but over time our duplicity and insincerity well breed distrust. Everything we do will be perceived as manipulative. We may have the ‘right’ rhetoric, style, and even intention, but without trust we would not achieve primary greatness or lasting success. To focus on technique is like cramming your way through school. You sometimes get by, perhaps even get good grades, but if you do not pay the price, day in and day out, you will never achieve mastery of any subject. You must pay the price and follow the process. You reap what you sow; there is no short cut.

The law of harvest also operates in long-term human relationships. In a social or academic system, you may get by if you learn how to “play the game.” You may make favorable first impressions through charm; you may win through intimidation. But secondary personality traits alone have no permanent worth in long-term relationships. “If there is no deep integrity and fundamental character strength, true motives will eventually surface and human relationships will fail.”

Many people with secondary greatness – that is, social status, position, fame, wealth, or talent – lack primary greatness or goodness of character. And this void is evident in every long-term relationship they have. It is character that communicates most eloquently. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it, “What you are shouts so loud in my ears I cannot hear what you say.”

How We See Ourselves

The view we have of ourselves affects not only our attitudes and behaviors, but also our view of other people. In fact, until we take how we see ourselves – and how we see others – into account, we will be unable to understand how others see and feel about themselves and their world. Unaware, we will project our intentions on their behavior and think ourselves as objective. 

In fact, Stephen Covey believes strongly that if the vision we have of ourselves comes from the social mirror – from the opinions, perceptions, and paradigms of people around us – our view of ourselves is like a reflection in the crazy mirror at the street party. “Specific data is disjointed and out of proportion.” When the basic source of a person’s definition of himself is the social mirror, he may confuse the mirror reflection with his real self; in fact, he may begin to believe and accept the image in the mirror, even rejecting other, more positive views of himself unless they show the distortions he has come to accept.

Covey suggests the antidote for a poisoned self-image is the affirmation of your worth and the potential by another person. To affirm a person’s worth or potential, he suggests, you may have to look at him with the eye of faith and treat him in terms of his potential, not his behavior. Goethe put it this way: “Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is; treat a man as he can and should be, and he will become as he can and should be.”

It is often said that you have to like yourself before you can like others. Granted, but if you do not know yourself, if you do not control yourself, if you do not have mastery over yourself, it is very hard to like yourself, except in some superficial way. 

Real self-respect comes from dominion over self. If our motives, words, and actions come from ‘human relations techniques’ rather than our own inner core, others will sense our insecurity and duplicity. We simply would not be able to create and sustain effective, win-win relationships.

Three Character Traits

The Covey Leadership Center outlines the following character traits as essential to primary greatness. 

  • Integrity. Defined as the value we place on ourselves. As we clearly identify our values and proactively organize and execute around our priorities on a daily basis, we develop self-awareness and self-value by making and keeping meaningful promises and commitments. If we cannot make and keep commitments to ourselves as well as others, our commitments become meaningless. We know it, and others know it. They sense our duplicity and become guarded.
  • Maturity. Covey defines maturity as the balance between courage and consideration. If a person can express his feelings and convictions with courage balanced with consideration for the feelings and convictions of another person, he is mature. If he lacks internal maturity and emotional strength, he might borrow strength from his position, power, credentials, seniority, or affiliations. While courage may focus on getting bottom-line results, consideration deals more with the long-term welfare of other stakeholders. “In fact, the basic mission of mature management is to increase the standard of living and the quality of life for all stakeholders.” 
  • Abundance Mentality. The thinking is that there is plenty out there for everybody. This abundance mentality flows out of a deep sense of personal worth and security. It results in sharing recognition, profits, and responsibility. It opens up creative new options and alternatives. It turns personal joy and fulfillment outward. It recognizes unlimited possibilities for positive interaction, growth, and development.

Most people are deeply scripted in the scarcity mentality. They see life as a finite pie. If someone gets a big piece of the pie, it means less for everybody else. It is the zero-sum paradigm of life. People with scarcity mentality have a hard time sharing recognition, credit, power, or profit. They also have a tough time being genuinely happy for the success of other people – even, and sometimes especially, members of their own family or close friends and associates. “It is almost as if something were being taken from them when someone else receives special recognition or success.”

A character rich in integrity, maturity, and the abundance mentality, has a genuineness that goes far beyond technique. Your character is constantly radiating, communicating. From it, people come to trust or distrust you. If your life runs hot and cold, if you are both caustic and kind, if your private performance does not square with your public performance, people will not open up to you, even if they want and need your love or help. They will not feel safe enough to expose their opinions and tender feelings. 

People of primary greatness return kindness for offense, patience for impatience. They bring out the best in those around them by seeking to bless when being cursed, to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to forgive and forget, to move on in life with cheerfulness, believing in the potential goodness of people and eventual triumph of truth.

As we give grace to others, we receive grace ourselves. As we affirm people and show a fundamental belief in their capacity to grow and improve, as we bless them even as they are cursing or judging us – we build primary greatness into our personality and character. 


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