While thousands of leadership books are published each year, only a few might get some short-term success while the vast majority are quickly forgotten. So how has the bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People maintained its enviable shelf life for 25 years while so many other business and leadership books fade away fast?
First published August 15, 1989 by business management professor and leadership expert Stephen R. Covey, the book lays out seven core principles for achieving success in leadership and life—including often-quoted principles such as “Begin with the end in mind,” “First things first,” and “Think win-win.” The book has sold more than 25 million copies and continues to be used often in leadership training at companies and universities around the United States and worldwide. It’s been translated into 52 languages and helped build what’s now a $200 million enterprise.
After the huge initial success of the book, which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 220 weeks, Covey was able to expand his training empire and author career. The book spawned an array of other books written by Covey, his family members, and others throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, including 7 Habits of Happy Kids, The 8th Habit, and 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families. More than 25 heads of state, including U.S. President Bill Clinton, asked Covey to help them learn and use the seven principles. Covey passed away in 2012 at age 79 after a bicycling accident but his empire lives on through the Utah-based global training company he helped build, Franklin Covey Co. The book’s enduring success has a lot to teach business owners and thought leaders even today, revealing lessons on clear thinking and motivational messaging a generation after it was published.
1. Be accessible. The book’s title spawned its share of imitators, proving its catchiness. But it also drew readers in, says Sean Covey, one of Stephen’s sons, an executive vice president at Franklin Covey. Stephen had originally planned to call his book “Restoring the Character Ethic,” but ultimately decided it needed a snappier title that explained the book’s takeaway in an enticing, clear way.
2. Make big ideas easy to relate to. Covey spent decades reading and contemplating the works of many “great American thinkers,” including everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Henry James Thoreau. He fine-tuned his seven key principles, based on those years of reading and research, Sean says. But he took it a step further and injected real-life experiences and examples into his book to make the seven principles more relatable to readers.
3. Don’t rush it. “This wasn’t something he pumped out over a few months,” Sean Covey says. “This was his life’s work.” Stephen first started using his seven principles in 1985 in leadership workshops at the Covey Leadership Center (which merged with Franklin Quest in 1997 to become Franklin Covey.) The workshops eventually became so popular that he decided to turn them into a book. Strangely enough, Sean adds, “at the time, they were a little bit nervous about publishing the book because they thought it might cannibalize the workshop they were teaching.”
4. Keep the message alive. The popularity of his book helped convince Covey that many people yearned for such information but needed help incorporating the principles into their lives and work. He expanded on the principles in his book by creating new training programs around them. Today, many people buy the book as part of their leadership training. As part of the 25th anniversary, Franklin Covey has introduced a smartphone app called Living the 7 Habits for iOS and Android and introduced an updated (“4.0”) version of its training program for organizations and individuals.
5. Craft universal lessons. By the late 1990s, the book was being published all over the world and today “it’s just as popular in China, Puerto Rico and Brazil as it is in the [United States,]” Sean Covey says.
The seven key principles are so enduring, Covey says, because they are timeless and universal. They point to real-life experiences—interactions between people—that anyone can relate with. Thanks to the timelessness of the advice, the book's original text has been changed only slightly over the years.
6. Share ideas that can have impact. David Esposito, who runs a personal and professional development consulting firm and an early-stage medical device company in Portage, Michigan says the book has also had a profound influence on him and his life. Two principles in the book—“First things first” and “understand before being understood”—have particularly resonated with him as he tried to balance his family life with his career. It helped him understand the importance of learning others’ points of views before making judgments or expecting others to see his point of view. “I have pen markings throughout the book,” he says, “but certain parts have really changed how I view the world.”
7. Be clear and organized. DaVita Healthcare Partners, a Denver-based kidney dialysis provider, frequently uses 7 Habits in its employee and management training programs for of its more than 50,000 employees worldwide. Jennifer Colosimo, vice president of DaVita’s “Wisdom Group" and a former executive at FranklinCovey, says she first read the book in 1994 and recently trained a group of 50 DaVita executives on the seven principles. She cites its clear message as a major driver of its popularity. “[Covey] organized these principles in a simple way that—no matter where you were—you’d be able to understand them,” she says. Colosimo notes that even Covey frequently acknowledged these weren't unique ideas. “He just organized them well.”
Esposito first read the book as a young sales rep in 1994 and still keeps it handy on the bookshelf in his office. “There’s a lot of pump-up [business] books out there,” he says. “This book …took what could be very complicated ideas and boiled them down very clearly.”