Habit Forming: The Legacy of Stephen Covey

“There are certain things that are fundamental to human fulfillment. The essence of these needs is captured in the phrase; to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. The need to live is our physical need for such things as food, clothing, shelter, economical well-being, health. The need to love is our social need to relate to other people, to belong, to love and be loved. The need to learn is our mental need to develop and grow. And the need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, personal congruence, and contribution.”  –Stephen Covey

Last month Stephen Covey died of injuries related to a cycling accident back in April. He was 79 years old. At the time of his death he was a professor at Utah State University, but he will be best remembered for his 1989 book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

This book has been on the bestseller lists ever since its publication and was named as one of the top 25 most influential business management books by Time magazine in April 2011. I first read this book when I was in university and what struck me is that it really has very little to do with actual business. The concepts in the book can work equally on an individual level as it does on an organizational or corporate level, which is why I think it has such wide appeal. (It even applies to librarians!)

The first three habits are focused on looking inwards:

1. Be Proactive: the concept that our decisions are the primary factor in determining our effectiveness and that our choices have consequences that we must live up to.

2. Begin with the End in Mind: The idea that we should envision the best qualities in all our roles and responsibilities in life and aim to live up to them – a form of a mission statement without calling it a mission statement.

3. Put First Things First: The habit of planning, prioritizing and carrying out your week’s tasks based on importance rather than urgency, based on the roles and responsibilities defined in habit 2. I still thing of my life in weekly chunks based on this habit.

The next three habits involve our relationships with others:

4. Think Win-Win: This term has become commonplace in our language now, along with the idea of synergy,  but in 1989 Stephen Covey was one of the first to talk about these concepts.

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood: A paraphrase of the prayer of St. Francis, Covey would often draw on examples from his membership in the Mormon church. The idea of “emphatic listening,” Covey writes, will most likely compel the other person to engage in emphatic listening as well, creating an atmosphere of respect and mutual understanding.

6. Synergize: The idea that a group is greater than the individual sum of its parts and that great things can be accomplished through positive team-work. The leader must model inspirational and supportive leadership.

The final habit, “Sharpening the Saw,” is the idea that you must take time to make sure all the other habits are still working as they should in your life, and to make adjustments in your lifestyle on a regular basis. Covey mentions regular exercise, prayer, good reading and service to the community are all ways to maintain optimum physical, mental and spiritual help.

In addition to being remembered for his seven habits, Stephen Covey also wrote a number of other self-improvement and inspirational books.

In 2004 he expanded on his habits and wrote “The 8th Habit,” which looks at finding your own voice and helping others to find them. He lists 6 barriers (or “cancers” as his calls them) to this: cynicism, criticism, comparing, complaining, competing and contending.

Dr. Covey’s sons have also followed in their father’s footsteps:

And finally, you know you’ve really made an impact on your culture when you yourself  become the target of a parody. Sure enough, there’s a Dilbert collection called “Seven years of highly defective people” and something called “The seven habits of highly defective people and other bestsellers that won’t go away.”

Stephen Covey changed the way organizations and individuals thought about decision-making and introduced many concepts that have since become “buzz words” in our culture. He leaves a strong legacy behind and will be an influence on us for many years to come.


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