New Model Adviser - For Professional Investors

Register to get unlimited access to Citywire’s fund manager database. Registration is free and only takes a minute.

Book review: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Book review: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

In a nutshell: Real effectiveness comes from clarity about your principles, values, and vision. Change is only real if it has become habitual.


Stephen Covey’s book is one of the phenomena of modern personal development writing. It has sold a million copies a year since its release in 1989, has been translated into 32 languages, and forms the intellectual basis of a large corporation.

Covey drew a distinction between what he termed the ‘personality ethic’ (the quick-fix solutions and human relations techniques that had pervaded much of 20th century self-help writing) and the ‘character ethic’, which revolved around unchanging personal principles.

Covey believed outward success was not success at all if it was not the manifestation of inner mastery. In his terminology, ‘private victory’ must precede ‘public victory.’ It is a business plan for personal life.

The book is a compelling read, both as a self-help book and as a leadership/management manual. This cross-over status effectively doubled its market. The book has become regarded as a classic of business thinking.

Habits: the building blocks of change

Covey regarded real greatness as the result of the slow development of character; our daily habits of thinking and acting. The 7 Habits promises a life revolution as the result of thousands of small changes.

By the late 1980s, Western culture had had decades of management theory about efficiency. Covey took a different perspective: think about what is most important to you and see if it is the centre around which your life revolves. There is no use being ‘efficient’ if what you are doing lacks meaning or an essential good.

Covey’s book struck a nerve because it showed many people what genuine responsibility was about. To blame ‘the economy’ or ‘my terrible employer’ or ‘my family’ for our troubles was useless. To have fulfilment and personal power, we have to decide what we will take responsibility for, what is in our ‘circle of concern’. Only by working on ourselves could we hope to expand our ‘circle of influence’.

The seven habits in brief

1. Be proactive.

We have the freedom to choose our reactions to stimuli. We do not have to live by the scripts that family or society have given us. We accept full responsibility for our life the way conscience tells us that it was meant to be lived.

2. Begin with the end in mind.

What do I want people to say about me at my funeral? By writing our own eulogy or creating a personal mission statement, we create the ultimate objective or person first, and work backward from there.

3. Put first things first.

Having the end in our mind, we can plan our days for maximum effectiveness and enjoyment. Our time is spent with the people and things that matter.

4. Think win/win.

One person’s success does not need to be achieved at the expense of the success of others. In seeking win/win outcomes, we never endanger our own principles.

5. Seek to understand, then to be understood.

Without empathy, there is no influence. Without deposits in the emotional bank account of relationships, there is no trust. Genuine listening gives precious psychological air to the other person, and opens a window on to their soul.

6. Synergise.

Synergy results from the exercise of all the other habits. It brings forth ‘third alternatives’ or perfect outcomes that cannot be predicted from adding up the sum of the parts.

7. ‘Sharpen the saw’.

We need to balance the physical, spiritual, mental and social dimensions of life. ‘Sharpening the saw’ to increase productivity involves taking the time to renew ourselves in these areas regularly.

Final comments

It has been said that Covey’s seven habits are merely common sense. On their own they may be, but put together in that sequence and with the philosophy of principle-centredness to support them, they can produce the synergy that Covey celebrates. The 7 Habits gives readers the means for changing the little to transform the big.

In a similar vein

  • Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1959)
  • Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (1790)
  • Philip C. McGraw, Life Strategies (1999)

Stephen Covey biography

Born in 1932, Covey has a Harvard MBA and spent most of his career at Utah’s Brigham Young University, where he was a professor of organisational behavior and business management.

In 1984 he founded the Covey Leadership Center, which later merged with the Franklin Quest company to form Franklin Covey, a $500 million company that sells learning and performance tools in the areas of leadership and productivity, trains 750,000 people annually and runs more than 150 retail stores.

Covey’s other books include Principle-Centered Leadership, First Things First, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, and Living the Seven Habits. His latest book is Leadership.

Extracted from 50 SELF-HELP CLASSICS: 50 Inspirational Books to Transform Your Life by Tom Butler-Bowdon, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing in paperback at £12.99. To order your copy with free postage and packaging (UK only) phone 0207 239 0360 or email:

Leave a comment!

Please sign in or register to comment. It is free to register and only takes a minute or two.
Comment & analysis