The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: "Self Help" that Stands the Test of Time

by Jean Marie Johnson

"Every human has four endowments- self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom... The power to choose, to respond, to change."
—Stephen R. Covey

One Great Man

It was 2012 and amid the pre-Olympic hype, election year politics, and the usual dose of human triumph and tragedy, I read of the passing of one great man, Stephen R. Covey. The co-founder and director of the professional services company, FranklinCovey, Dr. Covey was recognized in 1996 as one of Time magazine's 25 Most Influential Americans. In 2002, he received the prestigious National Entrepreneur of the Year Lifetime Award for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

In the public arena, Dr. Covey became the near-equivalent of a household name with the 1989 release of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The slim volume of practical, inspired wisdom became an international tour de force which sold more than 20 million copies and was named by Forbes as "one of the 10 most influential management books ever written." The Washington Post, in their tribute to Dr. Covey, identified The Seven Habits as "one of the most highly effective volumes in the history of self-help publishing." And the list goes on.

A Timeless Message

"There are three constants in life... change, choice and principles."
—Stephen R. Covey

While the roll call of accomplishments and accolades speaks to Dr. Covey's leadership and success, that is not what speaks most to me. When I think of this great man, I remember a solid and sincere voice emerging from the fledgling self-help industry of 1989.

1989…I was there: perm, pumps, professional title. The World Wide Web entered our consciousness and, in fits and starts, our day to day communication…ww, what? It didn't exactly roll off of our tongues, but did we ever catch on fast! And if you were there, too, you will remember that The Cosby Show brought us together, Harry met Sally, Mikhail Gorbachev was Time Magazine's Man of the Year, and Gameboy was a different type of "habit."

Field of Dreams

And while all of that was happening completely independent of me, I found "The Seven Habits," or perhaps they found me. I squirrelled away a copy in the bottom right-hand drawer of my Steelcase office desk, tucking it in with paper copies of my Annual Performance Reviews. That anonymous and seemingly-innocuous drawer was sacred; it was my personal Field of Dreams. Resumes, applications for those coveted corporate positions, smiley face Post-It's and a folder filled with Thank You Notes from associates who had cried, high-fived me, or cried, and later high-fived me in my office.

I've dragged most of that drawer's contents with me through changes of address and life triumphs and upheavals too numerous to recount.

I gave "The Seven Habits" to my dotted-line boss along the way, accompanied by the simple words, "You've got to read this." There was no hidden message or passive-aggressive move in that gesture; we had the kind of relationship where real talk was both safe and welcome. And somewhere along the way, too, I managed to lose the personal summary I had crafted from Dr. Covey's three-pronged message about cultivating the best in self, in others and the importance of renewal. These many years later, I still marvel at what made these Seven Habits resonate so deeply, not just with me, but with so many others. 

Character Trumps Personality

"People can't live with change if there's not a changeless core inside them. The key to the ability to change is a changeless sense of who you are, what you are about and what you value."
—Stephen R. Covey

Nancy Koehn, Harvard Business School historian has perhaps said it best, citing Dr. Covey's practical and inspired approach as an action plan for business leaders who didn't want to be "the man in the gray suit." The Seven Habits presented an alternative, one that went beyond the suit and its armor to the fundamental matter of character and personal integrity. It invited us to get reacquainted with the self who lives both underneath and fundamentally beyond the one who shows up every day.

Ultimately, Dr. Covey invited us to consider the disturbance at the core, the disconnect between who we are and what we value and how we are and what we do, moment by moment. For me, it couldn't get any more real than that.

While reality checks are often painful and sometimes harsh, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People struck a very different note. With both compassion and conviction, it spoke to a belief in our individual ability to be and to do better. The first three habits focused on independence and personal mastery:

1. Be proactive
2. Begin with the end in mind
3. Put first things first

The next three habits reminded us of the value of cooperation versus competition:

4. Think win-win
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
6. Synergize

And, finally, we were encouraged to care for ourselves, to continuously cultivate who we really are, to:

7. Sharpen the saw

A Legacy that's Personal

"Live out of your imagination, not your history."
—Stephen R. Covey

Dr. Covey's foundational work, in the form of those Seven Habits, made me realize the discomfort I was feeling in those proper pumps. And it wasn't the shoes; it was how I had contorted my step when I was in them. I needed to go back to my core, to make some adjustments. And I did. At a critical time in my life and my work, the slim volume that resided in my Field of Dreams helped me to step back, and to begin the lifelong journey of consciously cultivating the best in me.

Thus my tribute to Dr. Stephen R. Covey.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.

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