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Is Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People worth reading? How can implementing Covey’s seven habits help you become more effective and generally enrich your life?
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People distills common knowledge and oft-repeated wisdom—from classic philosophy to religious teachings—into seven lifelong practices that help build a successful and fulfilling life. In this self-help classic, author Stephen R. Covey draws on his expertise in business management, his Mormon faith, and his interest in living a life that is not only productive but also aligned with principles such as integrity, honesty, and fairness.
Our The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People review covers the book’s context, background, and critical reception by the readers.
About the Author
Covey (1932-2012) was an educator, management consultant, and prolific author of self-help, business, and leadership books. In classes, books, and training courses, Covey spent his career educating people on business management, leadership skills, and personal improvement.
- He earned a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Utah and a masters from Harvard.
- After training as a Mormon missionary, he earned a doctorate from Brigham Young University, where he wrote his dissertation on the progression of over 200 years of American success literature. (He explains in Chapter 1 that this study formed the basis of his approach to personal improvement.)
- In 1970, he joined the faculty at BYU’s Marriott School of Management and helped create the Master of Organizational Behavior program.
- In 1983, he left BYU to found the Covey Leadership Center (now Franklin Covey Co.), a company that trains organizations and individuals in leadership and personal effectiveness.
- In 2010, he became a professor and a Presidential Chair in Leadership at Utah State University. (Six years after Covey’s death, the university established the Stephen R. Covey Leadership Center at the Huntsman School of Business.)
Those who knew him well attest that Covey had a genuine desire not only to help others live a highly effective life, but also to live that way himself. Clayton Christensen (Harvard Business School professor, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, and a friend of Covey’s) has said that Covey’s commitment to living the principles and habits he wrote about made him stand out among peer authors.
Thanks to the success of 7 Habits and other books, Time magazine named Covey one of the 25 most influential Americans. He also accumulated a variety of other accolades and recognitions, including:
- Being ranked #47 on Thinkers50’s list of top business thinkers in 2011
- Receiving the National Entrepreneur of the Year Lifetime Award for Entrepreneurial Leadership
- Being ranked second in HR magazine’s 2010 and 2012 lists of the 30 Most Influential International Thinkers
FranklinCovey Co. continues to teach the seven habits to individuals and organizations through trainings in personal effectiveness, sales performance, leadership, and business execution. Additionally, the company’s Leader in Me program provides social-emotional curricula to participating K-12 schools.
Connect with FranklinCovey Co:
The Book’s Publication
Publisher: Free Press, an independent publisher later acquired by Simon & Schuster.
Published in 1989, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was Covey’s breakout success. While some of his earlier books—including Spiritual Roots of Human Relations (1970) and The Divine Center (1982)—were geared toward a Mormon audience, 7 Habits gained traction by targeting a mainstream audience and exploring the intersection of Covey’s areas of expertise: business, leadership, self-improvement, and how to lead a balanced family life.
The 7 Habits became such a cultural force that it essentially evolved into its own brand. The book spawned a number of adaptations, including:
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families (1997)
- The 7 Habits Journal (1998)
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens (1998), written by one of Covey’s sons, Sean Covey
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Personal Workbook (2004)
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Marriage (2008)
- The 7 Habits of Happy Kids (2008), by Sean Covey
- The 7 Habits on the Go (2020)
The book was also re-released for the 25th and 30th anniversaries. This guide refers to the 25th anniversary edition, which includes an afterword titled “Questions I Am Often Asked,” in which Covey reflects on the book’s reception, overall success, and continued relevance.
He continued writing until his death in 2012, publishing many books that expanded upon themes from 7 Habits. His bestsellers include:
- First Things First (1994), which elaborates on Habit 3 from The 7 Habits
- Principle-Centered Leadership (1992)
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families (1997)
- The 8th Habit (2004)
When 7 Habits was published at the close of the 1980s, its focus on self-reflection, personal improvement, and collaboration fulfilled both aspects of its double-billing as a business and self-help book.
First, as a business book, 7 Habits’s positioning as an organizational management tool and its emphasis on personal development and fostering more effective relationships were ideally timed to meet a swell of interest in how to be an effective leader. In the 1980s and ‘90s, many American corporate leaders were focused on cutting costs and boosting the bottom line. At the same time, there was a growing buzz around the concept of corporate culture as research emerged showing the profit and productivity gains of supporting employee morale. Covey’s people-oriented approach opened the floodgates for a slew of business-oriented self-help books in the decades since.
(The prioritization of employee happiness has also steadily snowballed to the loose dress codes, flexible schedules, and yoga-ball chairs of startup culture and post-pandemic shifts. And it seems to be working: In No Rules Rules, Netflix’s CEO chronicles how the firm became a dominant international media company, in large part by empowering employees through various policies and norms.)
Additionally, 7 Habits offered a different perspective not only to profit-driven executives, but also to everyday people looking for meaning, happiness, and a new definition of success in a decade of consumerism. (To wit: Madonna’s “Material Girl” was in the Billboard top 10 in 1985.) The ‘80s brought the rise of “yuppies,” or young professionals, who sought more than their parents’ dreams of earning a decent paycheck and having a family to go home to. For yuppies, success now required an impressive degree, a big paycheck, and nice clothes and cars to show off their wealth. However, despite yuppies’ outward success, popular media at the time suggests that they were struggling to find happiness and deeper meaning in life. Enter: a self-help book that centers its advice on time-tested principles and instructs readers to create personal mission statements (more on that in Habit 2).
In the evolution of self-help books, 7 Habits takes a left turn by aiming to change your behavior by addressing the root and altering your character. Covey calls this approach Character Ethic, and it’s fairly unique among the many Personality-Ethic messages of the time—including classics like How to Win Friends and Influence People, which focus on public-facing skills, attitudes, and behaviors. As an example, if you want to be a better listener, look to Personality Ethic for tips on attentive listening and Character Ethic for insight on the importance of listening in a relationship. (We’ll talk more about Character and Personality Ethics in Chapter 1.)
Although Covey’s focus on Character Ethic was uncommon at the time, it was not unprecedented. One of his influences was Peter Drucker, bestselling author of the 1996 classic The Effective Executive and the “father of management thinking”. Drucker took a Character-Ethic approach to organizations in the sense that he focused on the root issue, not the symptom—and the root of a company’s success is its people. He urged executives to raise productivity by supporting workers and fostering relationships, while many management consultants focused purely on output and profits.
Covey’s use of “habits” and “effectiveness” also appear to pay homage to Drucker, who categorized effectiveness as a habit that was “a complex of practices” that could be repeated to improve competence. Covey’s seven habits are precisely that: a set of ongoing practices for becoming more effective.
The Book’s Impact
In the crowded self-help landscape, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has distinguished itself as an enduring classic that remains the fifth best-selling self-help book ever published more than 30 years after its publication. The book has become a staple on the bookshelves of entrepreneurs, executives, school administrators, political leaders, and millions of self-improvement devotees (which may help explain why some terms from the book, like “synergy,” are now common buzzwords). Covey even counseled President Bill Clinton and more than 25 other national leaders on integrating the habits into their leadership.
The 7 Habits’s many accolades include:
- Being named one of Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Business Management Books” in 2011
- Being named one of Chief Executive magazine’s most influential book of the 20th century
- Spending more than four years on the New York Times bestseller list
- Selling more than 40 million copies in over 50 languages
- Selling 1.5 million copies of the audiobook
The book is successful, in large part, because it qualifies as business advice as well as personal improvement, which greatly expanded its audience. Some even claim that the book created the business self-help genre.
Furthermore, the seven habits pack an effective one-two punch:
- The principles underlying the habits draw on the common wisdom of multiple major religions as well as long standing ethical and social systems (for example, listen in order to understand, rather than to simply respond). These universal principles resonate with people from diverse regions, backgrounds, and cultures.
- The habits repackage those principles into practices and explain how to apply them. This approach makes the underlying principles more digestible and actionable.
Jim Collins (author of Built to Last and Good to Great) echoed this in his foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of the book. He wrote that the seven habits created a framework for timeless wisdom that was commonly known but had previously been difficult to apply—just as the Windows operating system made computing power accessible to average users.
Since the book’s publication, many of its core concepts have not only held up, but are as relevant as ever. For example, the final habit boils down to prioritizing time regularly for self-care—and while the importance of self-care is constantly trumpeted, it’s a habit that few people have truly cultivated.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People reviews have been mixed. The seven habits’ basis in universal principles—which, as discussed, is a major factor in its enduring success—is the target of much of fans’ praise as well as detractors’ criticism.
Praise: Fans appreciate that the core teachings are timeless and universal, which not only adds credibility to Covey’s presentation, but also ensures that the wisdom will still be applicable if readers revisit the book a few years later (and many do). They feel that Covey’s great service was precisely in reiterating, elaborating on, and methodizing these time-tested truths.
Some readers also say that, although many of the principles are based in common knowledge, those lessons were never instilled in them growing up, so reading 7 Habits helped fill that gap. And even among those who knew the principles, many didn’t know how to apply them in day-to-day life. Covey recognized this need: He never claimed to have conceived the principles behind the seven habits—rather, he said that “What’s common sense just isn’t common practice.”
Criticism: Some critics lament that Covey offers no new insights. Rather, they accuse him of merely repackaging common knowledge.
Additionally, in direct contrast to what some fans insist, many critics say that Covey actually falls short in making his advice specific enough to be actionable. For example, the book goes into detail about the importance of changing your paradigms in order to solve problems in your life, but one reviewer notes that Covey doesn’t explain specifically how to change your paradigm. (By contrast, a book like Tony Robbins’s Awaken the Giant Within, which promotes many similar themes, provides strategies for changing your thought patterns, such as eliminating disempowering words and metaphors from your daily vocabulary.)
Commentary on the Book’s Approach
Although 7 Habits is considered a business self-help book, it has two elements that distinguish it from most business books. First, Covey focuses heavily on developing personal character and living a life guided by principles—in fact, he hardly mentions business until three-fourths of the way through the first chapter. Throughout the book, the focus is still on the individual, intermittently explaining how the principles apply to organizations. Considering his inside-out philosophy of self-improvement, it’s only logical that his advice for business success would start not in the office, but in the mind.
Second, the text is sprinkled with mentions of God and faith (for instance, Covey notes that he believes that God is the source of “correct,” universal principles). Covey acknowledges that his faith colors his interpretation and application of the habits, and, according to Clayton Christensen—fellow Mormon and business author—the seven habits are rooted in Mormon teachings. However, Covey explains in the first chapter that the principles that underlie the seven habits are not derived from any one religion, but rather they are inspired by philosophies that most major religions also endorse. Since these principles extend beyond the boundaries of any faith, it is not necessary to believe in God or follow any religion in order to understand, agree with, or apply any of the seven habits.
As for the effectiveness of Covey’s habits, we must first define what it is to be an effective person. To Covey, living effectively means being aware of your guiding values, prioritizing things that help you live up to those values, and working efficiently and cooperatively with others. He makes this clear in Part 1, where he explains his definition of and approach to self-improvement before diving into the first habit. And, overall, the practices that Covey preaches do help people live more effective lives—but the text doesn’t provide much evidence beyond anecdotes and the sheer persistence of the principles underlying the habits. Covey relies more heavily on fables, time-tested wisdom, and common sense than on scientific research (though studies have since emerged confirming his assertions, as we’ll discuss later.
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