From Terrorism Response to Software Project Management: The Importance of Personal Mastery

Shannon Phillips and Howard Baker


After the terrorist attack in New York on September 11, 2001, Rudolph Giuliani wrote, “Much of your ability to get people to do what they have to do is going to depend on what they perceive when they look at you and listen to you.  They need to see someone who is stronger than they are, but human too” (Giuliani, 2002).

Such leadership strength is acquired through personal mastery.  Personal mastery is not a destination.  It is a life-long journey.  Personal mastery is exhibited by continually clarifying what we truly want and learning how to see objective reality more clearly so we can move toward what we truly want.  “People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas.  And they are deeply self-confident” (Senge, 1990).

This is not a contradiction.  Personal mastery is a mark of true maturity.  Covey (1989) states that after World War II western society as a whole experienced a major shift away from unchangeable principles and the “character ethic” to a personal quick fix mentality he calls the “personality ethic”.  The personality ethic places greater importance on “appearing to be” rather than on “being.”  For instance, rather than focusing on overcoming ignorance, a student may attempt to cover it up.  Such a student seeks a grade, but cares little about the actual learning.  The student’s goal is to manipulate the social system and ignore what is really happening in the mind.  The personality ethic is superficial, manipulative, and self-serving.  What matters most is outward appearance rather than inward substance and strength of character.

Personal mastery involves seeing objective reality and aligning our subjective values with principles.  Principles are guidelines for human conduct that are self-evident and have proven to have enduring value.  Examples of principles include integrity, honesty, humility, justice, and industry. Aligning personal values with these enduring principles result in inward strength of character and genuine caring and serving (Covey, 1989).

Recognition of a comprehensive set of principles facilitates the belief that people’s professional, personal, social, and spiritual lives do not have to be in conflict, but can be integrated into a consistent, well rounded, peacefully coexistent whole.  The rediscovery of the character ethic and a return to unchangeable principles is based on the foundational concept of personal mastery.  Personal mastery is foundational to human growth and maturity and is recognized as one of the five learning disciplines (Senge, 1990).

Since seeking personal mastery is a lifelong process, there are no “quick fixes” to be found.  Personal mastery involves cultivating an awareness of current reality, and refining one’s personal vision of where one wants to go and what one wants to become (Senge, 2000).  Although personal mastery is grounded in competence and skills, it goes beyond that.  Personal mastery moves a person away from self-interest and toward service to others.  It involves exploring motive as well as gaining knowledge.  Senge (1990) states, “Real vision cannot be understood in isolation from the idea of purpose.  By purpose, I mean an individual’s sense of why he is alive.”  This examination of purpose is what some refer to as a “spiritual” dimension (Block, 1993; Senge, 1990).

 “Learning organizations focus on application and reflection to generate personal mastery and self-awareness” (Gilley & Maycunich, 2000).  Reflection and self-awareness is key to how well an individual is facing reality.  Organizations cannot learn unless individuals learn.  However, the level of learning and the way learning takes place in an organization is in large measure determined by the organization’s culture (DiBella & Nevis, 1998).  Individuals learn best in a culture where everyone is accountable to everyone else.  “Accountability works to improve all systems” (Giuliani, 2002).  Personal accountability is at the heart of personal mastery.

Such personal accountability and growth is not naturally fostered in traditional hierarchical organizations. In such organizations the human factor is typically overlooked.  We have “high tech” organizations, but too many have still not achieved the “high touch” culture first put forward by John Naisbitt (1982).  “Overlooking the human factor still continues to be the costliest mistake organizations make” (Kline & Saunders, 1998).  Enabling organizational cultures and structures provide conditions where people can meet higher order needs such as self-respect and self-actualization (Senge, 1990).

Personal mastery is the learning discipline of continually clarifying, with depth, our personal vision, focusing our energies, developing patience, and seeing reality objectively.  “We are our ideas, concepts, and perceptions” (Hock, 1999).  Seeing reality is often a painful and frightening thing.  Cutting through “hype” means eliminating a false sense of well being (Paranjape, 2003).  It is very difficult to give up present perceptions of reality for better ones.  One of the most difficult, yet important rules of life is that it is okay to accept criticism.  Alston and Thaxton (2003), indicate that the only time we seem to grow is when we hear something that's not exactly a compliment.

Personal mastery starts with the clarified understanding of what are the important things in our lives, and then living our lives in the service of these things or aspirations (Senge, 1990).  This leads us to consider our personal relationships.  Our relationships with others—friends, a mate, parents, a child, or the boss—are often considered what matters most in a person’s life (Smith, 2000).  Trust is the “glue” that binds relationships. This is why personal mastery also encompasses a commitment to truth.  To build trust one must be trustworthy (Covey, 1989).  This commitment helps us to challenge our subjective paradigms of objective reality.

Individuals who practice personal mastery are systems thinkers who can see the interconnectedness of the world around them and thus feel connected to the whole. The systems perspective is “the ability to see things holistically by understanding the interconnectedness of the parts” (Maani and Benton, 1999).  A key to building personal relationships and interconnectedness is to see things in our own personal lives through systemic eyes.

A person that has achieved a high level of personal mastery creates the results that he or she truly seeks.  Such a person learns how to use reason and intuition to create these results.  Continuous improvement and creativity is the spirit of the learning organization.  People who have and seek an elevated degree of personal mastery are the type of persons needed at all levels of an organization in order for the organization to learn and grow.

One important learning organizational function is that of project manager.  “A project environment is the ultimate learning organization” (Fitzgerald, 2003).  It is important for the nimble project manager to display a high degree of personal mastery in order to be highly effective.  Project management has long been associated with creating a concrete model of what is envisioned and mapping out a detailed plan to pull current reality toward that vision.  The gap between the vision and current reality is the source of creative energy.  “The principle of creative tension is the central principle of personal mastery, integrating all elements of the discipline” (Senge, 1990).  In fact, Senge’s five disciplines “provide an easy-to-use and robust conceptual framework for approaching every project” (Fitzgerald, 2003).

Covey (1989) asserts that personal mastery, or what he terms the “private victory,” cannot be won without understanding and making use of the fact that every individual is a “programmer” of life.  A person first writes the program and then executes the program, putting what matters most ahead of other things.  Covey declares that there are three concepts that must be observed to achieve this private victory.  First, eliminate reactivity to a stimulus and replace it with a proactive response.  Proactivity is the concept that humans can make a choice in how they act concerning a given stimulus..

Second is the concept of beginning with the end in mind.  The “end” is what is truly important in a person’s life.  What results does the person want to achieve?  Will these results be balanced?  Does the person desire to integrate all the aspects of life, or only pursue one outcome such as becoming wealthy?  Covey says a person seeking the private victory needs to identify goals in all four areas of life: physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual.  The person then needs to make the integration of these goals a goal itself.  Often the "end in mind" will be expressed in the form of a mission statement.  The writing of a personal mission statement allows a person to create a governing constitution of life and capture in a document their personal sense of purpose (Covey, 1989)..

Third, Covey expresses that a person has to “put first things first.”  After identifying what are the most important things, a person must make choices as to how to use time based on these goals.  Things that matter most must never be subordinated to things that matter less.

In learning organizations personal mastery is the cornerstone for both the genuine desire to do well and to serve a purpose (Maani & Benton, 1999).  Velasquez (2001) puts forth that when we discover personal mastery we are also discovering beauty.  The principle of personal mastery frees us from the condemnation of self-indulgence.  It enlightens us to the prospect that we are capable of self-command, and therefore, truly capable of self-government.

Personal mastery is about making important choices based on principles.  Reactive behavior dictates only two things: either “you cannot do” or “you have to do”.  This is dichotomous thinking.  Persons with a high degree of personal mastery see most things in life as existing on a continuum.  This mindset encourages seeking creative solutions.  Through proactive behavior individuals can learn continually, serve humankind humanely, and know they are the masters of their personal vision.

An important aspect of personal mastery is self-knowledge (Fitzgerald, 2003).  Self-knowledge involves many aspects of our life.  One aspect is personality type.  An effective software project manager, for instance, may take advantage of the Myers-Briggs typology to increase self-knowledge.  This is valuable because a software project manager is often an extrovert surrounded by introverts.  “By understanding the difference between extroverts and introverts, the nimble project manager is freed from having to push a one-size-fits-all solution on the project team” (Fitzgerald, 2003).

Through evolving personal mastery a person can become exponentially self aware, and achieve both personal and interpersonal interconnectedness and synergy.  The four areas of life will begin to coalesce.  The person will experience greater and greater levels of personal synergy, where the whole of the four areas of life will be greater than the sum of the individual parts.  This personal synergy will influence those around in greater and greater circles of influence, and the person will make a difference in the lives of others (Covey, 1989).  The growing synergy of the inner life will connect with and affect external reality around, and the world will be a better place.


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About the authors:

Shannon Phillips

Shannon Phillips has worked mainly in the hospital emergency department setting and greatly enjoys helping people with their acute care needs.  He earned the degree of Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Texas at Tyler in 2000.  Currently, Shannon is pursuing a Masters degree in nursing along with a Family Nurse Practitioner degree through both the University of Texas at Tyler and Texas Tech. He has also begun work on a Ph.D. through Rush University.

Shannon Phillips can be contacted at

Howard Baker

Howard Baker is Assistant Professor of Computer Information Systems at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.  He holds a B.S. in Management from Samford University (Birmingham, AL), a Master of Accounting (MAcc) from the University of Southern California, and a Ph.D. in Information Systems from the University of Texas at Arlington.  He is also a Certified Internal Auditor (CIA).  Before entering his teaching career he worked for a Fortune 100 company as a project leader, two large financial institutions as head of information systems auditing, and as an information systems consultant in Europe and Australia.  Dr. Baker has been a Franklin Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People certified facilitator since 1994, and has served the University of Texas at Tyler as their facilitator since 1997.  He is also an adjunct professor in the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Texas at Tyler. His areas of research include knowledge management, data security, learning organizations, and leadership. He is a regular contributor to the weLEAD E-magazine (

Howard Baker can be contacted at

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