The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People | Study Guide

Stephen Covey

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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People | Context


Self-Help and Success Literature

Although The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is praised in business circles around the world and considered one of the top books about business leadership, bookstores and libraries categorize it as part of the self-help genre. Self-help encompasses any book that provides guidance for problems in one's everyday life. Low on statistically significant research and scholarly analyses, most self-help books offer educational and often inspirational advice presented in an informal, friendly tone. The term self-help originated with Samuel Smiles's 1859 book of the same name. Filled with inspirational stories about "hard-working men rising through the ranks," it outsold every book, except the Bible, in its debut year.

Self-help literature has been popular in the United States since the early 20th century, but the genre itself has been around as long as people have been writing. The earliest texts date back to ancient Egypt, where people read Sebayt (loosely translated as "teaching"), which provided instructions for living a good life. Similar texts followed in ancient Greece. By the Middle Ages (476–1300 CE) much of this advice was presented in the form of inspirational yet cautionary fables. Conduct books about proper behavior for men followed in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The 18th century was also known for "success literature," a genre The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen R. Covey studied extensively while doing research for his doctoral thesis. Unlike the era's conduct books, which provided guidance for a person's exterior being, success literature spoke to a person's inner self. One of the most popular writers of the time was the American founding father Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography and annual, the anonymously written Poor Richard's Almanack (1732–58), offered generic wisdom about "frugality, virtue, and success." Dozens of imitators followed in the 19th and 20th centuries, many taking their inspiration from conventional religious morals and values. Covey adopts this same focus on inner character in his own advice for success.

Deviations and Influences

The importance of one's character decreased dramatically in 20th-century self-help literature, beginning with American author Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends & Influence People (1936). Carnegie's tips for success were all about style, not substance, covering topics like conversation skills and presenting oneself in public. As the best-selling book of 1937, How to Win Friends & Influence People caused a dramatic change in the ways people thought about success. Dozens of imitators followed, and by the 1980s it was commonly accepted leaders and managers could achieve their goals if they behaved or presented themselves in certain ways. The "power of positive thinking," or imagining oneself as successful, was an immensely popular concept but one with which Covey disagreed. His scholarly research on success literature and his own life experiences as a corporate consultant indicated superficial changes had only a short-term effect. Long-term change occurred only with a shift in internal priorities and mindsets.

Also vexing to Covey was the increased focus on achieving success by building better organizations and redefining internal structures. Business literature gave the lives of employees little more thought than it would to cogs in a machine, but Covey believed the key to a successful company is its people. He wasn't alone in this way of thinking. Corporate consultant Peter Drucker, who began consulting for American companies in 1943, thought business to be a "human-driven enterprise" and emphasized the moral and social obligations corporations had to their employees. Covey built upon Drucker's ideas as well as those of Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, as he compiled his seven habits.

Both Drucker and Frankl were born in Austria in the early 1900s. However, their careers took dramatically different paths. Drucker, a well-known management consultant, educator, and author, fled Germany upon German dictator Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, finally settling in the United States in 1937. His first book, Concept of the Corporation (1946), was the result of his organizational analysis of the General Motors Corporation and introduced the idea of corporations as social institutions. He is commonly known as the father of the modern business corporation. Frankl, on the other hand, was a psychiatrist and the director of the neurological department of Rothschild Hospital in Vienna from 1940–42 before his three-year internment in Nazi concentration camps. Though he survived, his parents, his brother, and his wife perished. It was during this experience he realized the incredible impact one's choice of attitude had on one's ability to survive. His memoir about this experience, Man's Search for Meaning (1946), has often been cited as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

Frankl's influence is apparent in Covey's first two habits: "Be Proactive" and "Begin with the End in Mind." Covey was a strong proponent of Frankl's ideas about how one's choice of response to outside stimuli affects one's outlook and inner strength. Covey refers to the practice of choosing positive responses as proactivity, which he sees as the basis for true independence. Covey also echoes Frankl's theory that inner contentment stems from identifying one's meaning in life. While Frankl established a clinical approach for helping patients find their life's meaning, called logotherapy, Covey takes a more do-it-yourself route by having readers develop a Personal Mission Statement, which helps individuals solidify their life's purpose.

Covey turns to Drucker when it is time to achieve individual goals. Drucker initiated the idea of "management by objectives," which boils down to setting short-term goals as a means of achieving long-term goals. He was a strong believer in delegating responsibility and in declining opportunities that don't advance one's mission; these are hallmarks of Covey's Habit 3: "First Things First." Drucker also believed inner character is more important than exterior images and experiences. Covey's ideas about building synergistic relationships through trust and honesty mirror Drucker's on the subject. All three men believe real change comes from the inside and works its way out.

Reviews, Mergers, and a Worldwide Brand

More than 25 million copies of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People have been sold since the book's initial publication in 1989. Thousands of people, many already familiar with Covey's methods through his consulting company, The Covey Leadership Center, praised the book's ease of use and Covey's simple explanations, making the tenets of leadership and effective management easy to understand even for those not well versed in business jargon. However, critics found Covey's work far too simplistic and obvious; some even accused him of being a "snake-oil salesman," offering solutions that don't really work. But public approval far outweighed criticism, and as sales grew, so did Covey's reach. In 1994 President Bill Clinton asked Covey to join him and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at Camp David, the president's retreat, for advice on making the seven habits an integral part of his presidency. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich asked for Covey's assistance in developing a college course about American culture. More than 50 heads of state from around the world sought Covey's advice, and at one point his methods were taught in more than 800 schools across the globe. Two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies hired the Covey Leadership Center for management and leadership advice.

All this publicity and goodwill made Covey an extremely attractive business partner. In 1997 The Covey Leadership Center merged with Franklin Quest Company, owned by time management expert Hyrum Smith. In addition to consulting services, the newly minted FranklinCovey Company became the primary outlet for Covey's books, workbooks, audio CDs, and DVDs as well as Franklin's popular day planners. However, the economic downturn following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, coupled with the explosion of mobile technology, decreased the need for personal planning tools and the budgets to support them. Following the technological wave of the early 2000s, FranklinCovey's product sales and consulting business have been primarily housed online.

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