“Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals.” – Jim Rohn
First published in 1989, Steve Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was an instant bestseller that earned its author international acclaim. Despite profound economic, technological, and social changes, this work remains as good a guide to success as any ever published. The real problem, however, is one of implementation. Only a small subset of its readers seem to be able to put its principles to work in their lives. Why this would be, as well as few suggestions for remedying this problem, are discussed.
Useful literature on business improvement abounds
There is no shortage of good written material for entrepreneurs who are preoccupied with improving themselves and their businesses. Lots of excellent authors, themselves highly successful in business, come to mind: Jim Collins, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, John Maxwell, Napoleon Hill, Steve Covey, Malcolm Gladwell, and a host of others have contributed to the available storehouse of knowledge. When networking with other professionals, I’m always curious about what people are reading and what they’re finding most useful.
Covey’s 7 Habits: An underutilized resource
I’ve already tipped you off regarding where this discourse is heading— Steve Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Obviously, it’s one of my all time favorites, and I always bring it up in any conversations about business related books. In my experiences with the professionals I meet, I have found reliably that Covey’s work is one of the best known, but most underutilized resources available.
Oddly enough, when I say underutilized, I don’t mean that more people should read it, I mean that too many that have don’t apply what’s in it. I’ll get to what I mean by that later. But first let’s take a look at its intrinsic value and utility, both of which I think are quite impressive.
Rooted in timeless and universal principles
What makes this work so great? First, its applicability is independent of the rapid social, economic, and technological changes that have rendered so many other works obsolete. Also, its appeal is worldwide, showing that transcends cultural divides. Covey’s services as a consultant and trainer have been in demand on every continent in the world— enough said on that.
While doing the research that led up to the 7 Habits, Covey discovered that genuine success over the long run is rooted in timeless principles that themselves (1) do not change, and (2) are embraced by virtually every culture known to man.
These principles include self-imposed standards such as fairness, discipline, honesty, integrity, and diligence, all of which are required for success regardless of what the current state of the economy or technology may be. Despite superficial shifts in social trends, business is still about long term relationships, which have to be based on trust and credibility.
People who do not adhere to these principles may get what they want in the short run, but not for long. There was another “success” book that came out during the 1980s called Winning through Intimidation— when was the last time you heard a positive reference that that title?
Habits, not theories
Note that Steve Covey did not name his book, “7 Theories about What Makes People Highly Effective.” Theory is conspicuous in its absence from this work, which I, as a trained social and organizational psychologist, was pleased to see. The importance of formalized theory in the study of human behavior has steadily diminished ever since psychoanalysis lost its pizzazz. What matters is what people do.
The 7 Habits are actually a mix of habits of mind as well as more tangible patterns of behavior, but there is no grandiose, jargon-laced theory for readers to contend with. Covey is quick to point out that he really offers nothing new other than his own unique presentation of notions that it takes only what used to be called “common sense” to relate to (I say “used to” because what used to be common sense is anything but common these days).
A logical sequence of development
The 7 Habits are developed in a sequence best described as hierarchical (I promise that’s the biggest word I’ll use). No mystery— all that means is that they have to be built upon one another in order, from the most basic to the most complex. Each one serves as a stepping stone to the next.
This is another aspect of Covey’s work that distinguishes it from many other guides to personal growth and success. You can’t short circuit the process or pick and choose between the habits you feel like developing and those you don’t want to bother with.
Below is a quick review of the 7 Habits. Please note that the ability to list them does not enable one to implement them— that’s a whole different ball game, which requires planning, commitment, effort, and time (in that order).
# 1: Be proactive. “Effective people” constantly remind themselves they can’t control everything that will happen to them, but that they can control their responses to events. This reminds me of the Boy Scout’s motto, “Be prepared.” For what? You name it. You can’t control the weather, but you can have an umbrella, rain slicker, or coat available. The alternative, being reactive, leaves you scrambling for alternatives and “putting out fires” after problems and obstacles appear without warning.
#2: Begin with the end in mind. Genuinely successful people carefully strategize and set goals, complete with action steps, which include plans for dealing with obstacles. They are visionaries. Note how this depends upon your already having mastered Habit #1.
# 3: First things first. This is all about time management, and requires a mastery of Habits #1 & 2. By staying in touch with your priorities, you can avoid losing your way and getting stuck in destructive patterns of procrastination. By establishing Habits #s 1-3, you’ve defeated your worst enemy— yourself. It’s now time to focus on your interpersonal skills, since relationships are crucial, both in business and life.
#4: Think “win/win.” Eliminating any mindsets that foster destructive competitive and combative behaviors will help you to cultivate relationships based on trust and respect. What goes around comes around, so it only makes sense take the initiative in being generous and civil to others. The “Law of the Harvest” is that you reap what you sow.
#5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Most folks are better talkers than they are listeners. A lot of people fail in the area of sales, family life, and a host of other domains because of this natural inclination. Overcoming this tendency will increase your success in business and other areas of your life by a quantum leap. Regard the ability to “button your lip” as a skill worth practicing.
#6: Synergize. People are often uncomfortable with differences in opinion and outlook and try to eliminate these rather than appreciating them. Welcome such differences as sources of strength and creative solutions to problems and they will often produce pleasant surprises.
#7: “Sharpen the saw.” This particular recommendation means continually taking action to sharpen and refine Habits #1-#6. Being successful carries with it liabilities as old as human history— complacency and stagnation. By continuously reading books, and attending seminars and training sessions related to self improvement, as well as recent developments related to your business, you’ll stay sharp and avoid falling behind. Continuous improvement is essential to success in any field of endeavor.
Failures to implement the 7 Habits
Earlier I identified Covey’s work as an “underutilized resource.” In doing so, I did not mean that people who have never read it should, although I do make that recommendation. When I say “underutilized,” I mean by people who say they’ve read the book. Their comments about their experiences with it are telling. When I ask them about it, I usually get such responses as “Great book!” or “Good stuff!” or “I loved it!”
Rarely, however, do I get responses any more specific than that. When I follow up with questions regarding what aspects of it they found most useful, or how it’s changed what they do, the most common responses are admissions such as, “I don’t really remember much,” “Gee, it was a long time ago.”
Implementing the 7 Habits: Turning words into actions
To put it bluntly, most people are not particularly good at translating verbal material into effective action— it takes a special effort exerted over a considerable period of time to do so.
Covey includes “action exercises” (my term, not his) following the presentation of each habit, which very few people follow through and do. Skipping this essential step is most people’s first mistake.
You can’t learn to ride a bicycle by simply reading a book on the subject— you’d be fooling yourself if you thought you could. Book or no book, you must “practice, practice, practice.” You must be exceedingly intentional when it comes to acquiring desirable competencies, especially those as complex and interrelated as the 7 Habits. They must be mastered through conscious effort, in order, and over time. To read the book is to take but the first few steps of the journey.
Continuously sharpening the saw
One thing that human beings are masters of is forgetting what we know. How much new information ever gets covered in a good sales or leadership training seminar? Unless you’re truly a novice, none. The fact is, people must continuously be reminded of what they already know. Covey’s Habit #7 is all about assuring that that happens, by whatever means it takes.
The 7 Habits is a cornerstone for my consulting and coaching practice, which I consistently apply in order to ensure the continuous growth and development of my clients. If implemented, the 7 Habits can be a vehicle by which anyone can improve their businesses, themselves, and their lives.