Stephen Covey

Yesterday, Stephen Covey passed away at age 79. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the follow-on books in the series have sold 20 million copies. We selected 7 Habits for inclusion in The 100 Best Business Books of All Time and the following is the review we published:

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

by Stephen R. Covey

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the outcome of Stephen Covey’s doctoral research into personal development literature. He studied two hundred years worth of self-help, popular psychology, and self-improvement writings, and identified two distinct philosophies of self-improvement. The first is what we identify with principles found in the works of early American visionaries Benjamin Franklin: principles like integrity, industry, humility, and simplicity. Covey calls this the “Character Ethic,” and it was the dominant philosophy in American literature until the early 20th century. But Covey found the literature changed significantly after World War I, with a shift in emphasis from quality of character to improvement of personality, behavior, and attitude: the Personality Ethic. Though not by name, he takes aim at books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, Think and Grow Rich, and The Power of Positive Thinking, saying at best these books focus on secondary traits and at worst teach deception using a quick-fix mentality.

The first of Covey’s seven habits, “Be Proactive,” describes the freedom of choice one has between stimulus and response, between loss of a job and loss of self-worth. The initiative to learn a new skill is a simple incarnation of “Let’s look at the alternatives” versus “There’s nothing I can do.”

The next two habits address the same challenges an executive faces publicly: leadership and management. “Begin with the End in Mind” uses imagination to envision a set of creative choices about the future, the same energies employed in leadership. Covey advocates the development of personal mission statements to codify the varying roles and responsibilities of home, work, and community. “Put First Things First” takes that newly defined identity derived from the mission statement and matches up tasks and priorities to ensure alignment. When Covey asked readers which habit was the most difficult to adopt, this management process ranked number one, and he wrote another book, First Things First, to further explore the challenges.

“Self-mastery and self-discipline are the foundation of good relationships with others,” Covey writes (186), and then moves forward with his three public habits: “Think Win/Win,” “Seek First to Understand…Then to be Understood,” and “Synergize.” All are based on relationships. “Think Win/Win” is interpersonal leadership that creates mutual benefits for all parties. The classic negotiation book Getting to Yes uses the same philosophy that calls for individuals to use an abundance mentality in their interactions and look past the confining paradigm of the zero-sum game.

Being a good listener is a skill that is helpful in any relationship and sits at the core of “Seek First to Understand…Then to be Understood.” When someone is speaking to us, our natural response is to listen autobiographically: agreeing or disagreeing, asking questions from our point of view, giving advice based on our own experiences, trying to figure out what is making someone feel the way they do based on how we would react. Covey spends much of the chapter on an extended example of a conversation between a disillusioned son and well-intentioned father. Covey replays the conversation a number of times showing how ineffective listening with our biases can be. When listening, “rephrase the content and reflect the feeling,” the author writes, and then he shows how the conversation completely changes. The second half of the habit is about presenting ideas, and Covey returns to Aristotle’s rhetorical philosophy of ethos (character), pathos (emotion), and logos (logic).

“Synergy” encapsulates the entire Seven Habits process. When people join together, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and greater insights and previously unseen results are achieved. Covey suggests synergy is the third alternative to my way or the wrong way. All relationships grow when trust and cooperation grow.

The seventh habit, “Sharpen the Saw” returns to the individual. Covey believes we all have four dimensions that need continual renewal: the physical, the mental, the spiritual, and the social/emotion. He suggests spending an hour working on the first three every day. Find time for a cardiovascular workout. Read the classics. Keep a journal. Meditate or pray. It is only through recharging that we have the energies to succeed in the other aspects of our lives.