Many years ago when I was in my corporate life, I happened upon the powerful book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and I was very drawn to its simple yet transformative principles and strategies. To me, they just made perfect sense and those rare people whom I found to be great leaders were naturally applying these principles in their lives and work. On the other hand, I saw all around me certain behaviors of colleagues and managers that were in direct opposition to these principles, and it was demoralizing to observe and be a part of.
Later, when I became a marriage and family therapist and career coach, the principles in the book spoke to me in a different, deeper way. And the seven habits remained just as effective whether I applied them to my therapeutic work with individuals and families or in my career and leadership coaching work with executives.
The author of the 7 Habits groundbreaking framework, Stephen R. Covey (1932-2012), has been recognized as one of Time magazine’s twenty-five most influential Americans, and was an internationally respected leadership authority, family expert, teacher, organizational consultant and author. His books have sold more than twenty-five million copies in thirty-eight languages, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was named one of the two most influential books of the 20th century by CEO magazine.
I was very intrigued to hear of the new release of the 30th anniversary edition of the book, that offers fresh insights from Sean Covey, Stephen’s son and president of FranklinCovey Education. With Sean Covey’s added takeaways on how the habits can be used in our modern age, the wisdom of the seven habits has been refreshed for a new generation of leaders.
To learn more about how these habits are still impacting leaders and organizations today and how we can embrace them in new ways in our ever-evolving times, I was excited to catch up with Stephen M. R. Covey. Covey is cofounder of CoveyLink and the FranklinCovey Speed of Trust Practice. A sought-after keynote speaker and advisor on trust, leadership, ethics, and collaboration, he speaks to audiences around the world. He is the New York Times and #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Speed of Trust, a paradigm-shifting book that challenges our age-old assumption that trust is merely a soft, social virtue and instead demonstrates that trust is a hard-edged, economic driver.
Here’s what Covey shares:
Kathy Caprino: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People obviously inspired a new wave of thinking about personal and professional growth. What do you believe sets the original 7 habits apart from all of the other content out there now, during a time so full of advice telling us how to hack our thinking and actions?
Stephen M.R. Covey: The 7 Habits are built on enduring and timeless principles that apply everywhere, and in all circumstances.
It takes an inside-out approach, which is the only way to sustain personal, team, and organizational development. You move from dependence to independence to interdependence. Private victories precede public victories. If you want to succeed with others, succeed first with yourself.
My father had a gift for making all of this accessible, practical and actionable to people. He framed and organized the equivalent of an operating system for human effectiveness that is so usable. People have been able to apply these habits, and that application has created such enduring and sustaining power.
Caprino: Is there any one original habit that you feel is even more difficult to master or incorporate in this modern day than it was when this book was originally published? Conversely, are there any that you feel are easier to master today?
Covey: I think they are all difficult! I could argue all seven individually, but I’ll highlight just one, that I think is particularly important today and that is “Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.”
We’re living in a world that has become polarized in almost every way. Habit 5 teaches us why it is so critical that we seek to understand other people first before we try to influence them. Most people do just the opposite. The test of understanding is not when you tell the other person, “Hey, I understand.” It’s when they tell you, “I feel understood.” That is a gift. It doesn’t mean you agree—you may not. It just means you understand them. Once people feel truly understood, they are far more open to being influenced.
I believe that none of the habits have really become easier. But maybe in some ways “Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw”—the whole idea of renewal and the need for self-renewal has become more evident. The need to reinvent, and improve, as opposed to just keep sawing with a dull saw is even more clear. It’s still difficult, but there’s greater awareness of the value.
Caprino: Looking back at the last 30 years since the book was first released, are there any habits that you feel have been most impactful for business leaders and are there any great examples or stories for business leaders who have credited the book for their effectiveness?
Covey: I’ll highlight just a couple. The whole idea of “Habit 4: Think Win-Win” is a mindset for how to see the world. It flows out of an abundance mentality—the idea that there’s plenty for everyone. Many view the world like a pie—if you win some, there is less for me. It’s limited. The whole idea of an abundance mentality and thinking win-win is that you can grow the pie—we can all win abundantly. There’s more creativity and possibility out there than we might have imagined.
It reminds me of some of the research on a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. Think Win-Win is a growth mindset; it’s an abundance mindset—there’s enough for everyone. I’ve seen many business leaders truly transform their business and their leadership style with this approach.
They give credit to others, extend trust to others, and empower others, and find that none of this diminishes them. It actually grows the organization, grows the people, and grows the leader. In the long run, if you’re interdependent (and we all are), the only sustainable approach is Win-Win. It only takes one to start, and that one can change how the other is viewing the world.
The other one I would highlight would be “Habit 1: Be Proactive,” where we take ownership of our response to everything that happens to us. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi Power had lost power in 23 counties and people thought it would take a huge amount of time to get it back. The entire company was deep into 7 Habits training, it permeated their whole culture. Everyone was empowered, proactive and responsible, they were resourceful and took initiative.
Within twelve days after losing all the power, they were back, a feat USA Today called a “case study in crisis management.” You can’t do that in a reactive culture. So while these habits are about effective people, they apply equally to teams and to entire organizations. In fact, many businesses have built themselves around the 7 Habits.
Caprino: Which do you feel is the most important habit?
Covey: People would ask my dad that all the time, and I’ve heard him at different times say each of the 7 Habits! So how do you pick which one is most important? Maybe a way to think about it is that the most important habit for you is the one you’re having the most difficulty living and practicing.
That way we all have a personal way to look at this—which one is most difficult for each of us? That one is the most important.
Caprino: Are there any habits you have ever imagined adding to the book? Why or why not?
Covey: My dad would answer, “yes and no.” The “no” part is that the entire 7 Habits construct is pretty much all-encompassing. My father always felt like, “I can put almost everything I need to into one of those seven.” So I think, in that sense, they are whole. They are complete as-is.
But my father did later write another book called The 8th Habit. This was less about adding an additional habit as it was about giving a new dimension to the 7 Habits. He described it as this: “Find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.”
The 7 Habits help you find your voice. Then your job as a leader is to inspire others to find their voice. That is what leadership is. My father’s definition of leadership is the most beautiful I’ve ever heard: “Leadership is communicating people’s worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.” That’s the 8th Habit. You help others to see it, and they come to find it for themselves. That’s what my father added as a new contribution.
Caprino: For people who have already read the original book one or more times, and who are loyal fans and followers of your father because of it, what do you think is the biggest reason they should pick up a copy of this new edition?
Covey: Those who already love The 7 Habits are the ones who will love this 30th anniversary edition the most. It has superb additional insights, examples and stories, including behind-the-scenes interactions with my father. These come from my brilliant brother, Sean, who apart from my father, has spent more time and has written more about the 7 Habits than any other person.
He wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens and The 7 Habits of Happy Kids. He has led the work in education with a whole school transformation process, Leader in Me, where they have taken the 7 Habits into over 5,000 schools in over 50 countries. Sean is a practitioner of the 7 Habits in every context. At the end of each chapter, Sean shares added insights with examples and stories with my dad on his greatest learnings, applications, understandings of the very things taught in that chapter. It’s insightful, it’s profound, it’s fun, it’s engaging. It’s like being taken into the living room with my father and having a dialogue with him.
Caprino: What one of these 7 Habits has been most instrumental in your own life and work
Covey: While each of the 7 Habits has had a profound impact on me personally, perhaps the habit that has influenced me the most is “Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind.” This habit reminds us that each of us can be the creative force in our life, and that the best way to predict our future is to create it.
Einstein taught that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Similarly, a vision for ourselves and for our lives (along with chosen values to guide us), is more important than memory.
For me, applying Habit 2 has enabled me to identify and focus on what matters most to me: meaning, purpose, and contribution. And finding my voice. I feel I have found my voice around my work on trust, and through my book The Speed of Trust. For me, increasing trust in the world is my life’s work, and deeply applying Habit 2 has led me to this point.