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The long and unexpected legacy of '7 Habits of Highly Effective People'

What to read after '7 Habits', which changed how business books are written - and read.

August 29, 2021 / 08:34 PM IST
Representational image. Business books at a market stall.

Representational image. Business books at a market stall.

When Stephen R. Covey wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), he was indirectly feeding some “chicken soup for the soul” to several American managers and C-suite executives back in the late 1980s (his son Sean later re-wrote the book for teens).

More importantly, Covey had blended the personal, self-help genre with the hard, business core of books on economics, in order to create something completely new and unheard of—a treatise of canonical principles for success that have inspired thousands of people over the last 32 years.

Future proof

The habits Covey prescribed were derived from multiple movements in history, but he structured them around a simple and universal foundation to make it palatable to a wider audience. The principles involved the three tenets of independence, interdependence, and continuous improvement.

Over the years, many of Covey's ideas from the 7 Habits have been repurposed and adapted into divergent schools of thought.


To understand the shift 7 Habits facilitated, let's go back a bit to see what most American and European management writers were producing in the post-World War scenario.

By the late-1940s, they had begun adapting and translating Zen’s meditative and intuitive philosophy based on Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. They used metaphors of strategic warfare for business, and were writing books such as Zen in the Art of Archery (Eugen Herrigel, 1948); The Way of Zen (Alan Watts, 1957); Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert M. Pirsig, 1974); and Zen and the Art of Happiness (Chris Prentiss, 2006).

“For example, Sun Tzu’s Art of War has been used as a business manual,” says Satish Purohit, a former journalist-turned-executive coach, who is the founder of Manlion Author Solutions, a Mumbai-based company that helps corporate trainers write, publish, and sell their books.

“Today, you need to understand what the strength of the enemy is, what fire power they have when you compute their ability to fight or surprise you. But battlefields of the future are going to be different,” says Purohit.

“The military discourse term VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) speaks of a battlefield where everything will be unpredictable. This thinking emerged out of the US, and has to do with the US strategic thinking, and has implications for business as well, because the world of business and the art of war have always been connected to each other. There is biological warfare, but there is also cyber warfare,” Purohit adds.

“The management ideas that are hot and in currency right now thus involve change management as well as crisis management,” says Purohit.

Ideas that can be traced back to Covey


  • Habit #1: Be Proactive (Take Initiative and Responsibility)

  • Habit #2: Begin with the end in mind (Think of the Future Consequences)

  • Habit #3: First things first (Learn to Prioritize)


  • Habit #4: Think Win-Win (Think of Mutually Beneficial Situations)

  • Habit #5: Seek first to understand, then be understood (Be Empathetic)

  • Habit #6: Synergize (Practice Teamwork)

Continual Improvement

Habit #7: Sharpen the saw; Growth (Self-Actualise through Yoga)

The anarchy of unpredictability

The ideological makeup of Western management books has shifted towards left-liberal thought. These books tend to use the “unpredictability” factor to subvert rival regimes elsewhere in the world through ideas rooted in liberalism.

Case in point: Erin Meyer and Reed Hasting’s book No Rule Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention (2020) speaks about “how you should never, ever please your boss”.

According to management consultant and retired HR head at the Taj Group of Hotels, P.V. Murthy, “Leadership is one of the most abused terms in management philosophy. There are several concepts, several theories, and several publications around the subject of leadership.”

Murthy cites the example of Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann's Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electricals (2020), which paints Jack Welch’s successor at GE Jeffrey Immelt as a demon “who wanted to”, as Murthy states, “put his stamp of leadership on everything he did, taking the organisation to the brink of disaster.”

“Hierarchies come through colonial practice,” suggests Murthy, who says that besides agility in managerial processes and rigidity in manufacturing processes, there is now an emphasis on an organisation’s subjective “culture”, and a higher level of “humanity”, through which “layers are being broken”.

Such a neoliberal value system espoused since the 20th century and into the 21st century is founded on principles of networking, relationships, and the interdependence that Covey discussed, but have been seen to lack an understanding of Covey’s concept of independence.

Ray Dalio’s Principles (2017) also follows the format of Covey’s habits but distinguishes itself by upholding a central premise through a relative duality between “Life and Work” instead.

From Dale Carnegie’s bestselling self-help book How to Make Friends and Influence People (1936) and to Daniel Goleman’s notion of “emotional” intelligence in opposition to a scientific/technical one in Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1995) and Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life (1998), these titles abolished a centrality and authority at the workplace by choosing to subjectivise the organisational psyche.

Ground beneath their feet

The knowledge contained in Hindu philosophical treatises is being recontextualized within ‘liberal’ paradigms by writers like Devdutt Pattnaik and Debashish Chatterjee (their books develop links between ancient Vedic knowledge and management or leadership).

The new ideas emerging out of India and Asia are based not just on glamour and romance but also on authority and discipline.

IndiGo’s Senior Vice President and HR Head Raj Raghavan says: “It is important to explain to new entrants that in order to achieve their dreams, they must first allow us to equip them with the life skills that go much beyond the job.”

Raj Raghavan IndiGo Raj Raghavan

“For instance, if you are cabin staff, you need a customer-service mindset, which is about empathy and patience, but also firmness, in order to keep a flight safe. Aircrafts today are technologically very advanced and can react to lots of situations, unlike over twenty years ago, when one needed a flight navigator to guide the pilot. But human intelligence, human decision making, and a control of emotions is still essential,” adds Raghavan, emphasising the need for an equal amount of authority and ownership at the workplace in the face of unpredictability.

“Promotions and increments are ultimately based on a combined assessment of an employee’s potential, performance, and values,” says Raghavan.

The DNA of success

That’s how Taiwan’s economy is also surging ahead independently to take a share of the technology sector and compete with US and Chinese firms that have dominated the electronics market. “Taiwan is now famous for [inventing the] semiconductor almost 40 years ago,” says Leon Yu, Regional Director, System Business Group, ASUS India & South Asia.

Leon Yu Leon Yu

“They used the entire state government’s efforts to make sure that it was a success. That kind of innovation was possible because people in Taiwan are very down to earth,” he says further, adding how the previous 2–3 generations in Taiwan have built what he considers at ASUS too as the five most important ingredients into their DNAs—humility, honesty, agility, courageousness, and most importantly, diligence—making the country a successful leader in the semiconductor-based electronics industry today.
Supriya Thanawala is a freelance journalist.
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