How the 7 Habits Continue to Inspire Me

03/18/2015 09:53 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015

With the start of a new year, I've been thinking about the changes I'd like to make in my life, and I picked up an old friend -- a book -- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.

As I re-read a few pages, I was struck by how this book has changed the mindset of business. It taught us that success can't be measured only in cash flow, but also character -- not just income statements, but also integrity.

Because of the seven habits we now know about thinking win-win, becoming mission-driven, seeking first to understand, being proactive. We think in terms of vision, an abundance mentality, mutual benefit, empathy and synergy -- terms we never learned in business school.

Few books have had the global influence of The 7 Habits. It's in the library of every business leader I know. In India, people talk about how the seven habits are influencing the culture there, and the same is said in Iceland or Saudi Arabia, Korea or Canada, Brazil or Russia.

When I was invited to serve on the board of Franklin Covey Co., I came to understand that the seven habits are not a distillation of any single belief set, scientific theory or philosophical approach. They represent the depth and extent of Stephen Covey's decades-long quest to digest the principles and wisdom of many thinkers, leaders and cultures. He extracted from that vast treasury seven habits which created a universal formula for leading an effective, impactful, and meaningful life.

In his foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of The 7 Habits, Jim Collins, business thought leader and New York Times bestselling author of Good to Great had a similar insight:

There had been hundreds of years of accumulated wisdom about personal effectiveness, from Benjamin Franklin to Peter Drucker, but it was never assembled into one coherent, user-friendly framework. Stephen Covey created a standard operating system -- the 'Windows®' -- for personal effectiveness and he made it easy to use... The ideas embedded in the framework are timeless. They are principles. That is why they work, and why they speak to people in all age groups around the globe... But I think the most important aspect of the 7 Habits -- what makes it not just practical, but profound -- is its emphasis on building character rather than 'attaining success.' There is no effectiveness without discipline and there is no discipline without character... I have come to a personal belief... that great leadership begins first with character -- that leadership is primarily a function of who you are, for this is the foundation for everything you do.

But, some people dismiss 7 Habits as being simplistic or provincial. This is ironic, because Covey's work draws on insights with weight from Aristotle to Einstein and from Maya Angelou to Mandela. And, the book's appeal truly is universal. When people from all over the world hear that I was acquainted with Stephen Covey, they say, "Oh, I love his books. He understands, so well, the ideas of Confucius, Gandhi and Schweitzer." They identify with the seven habits -- they are so "European," "Asian," or "typically American."

Some detect traces of Zen in Covey's teachings, particularly the principle of importance over urgency. Buddhists admire Covey's teaching that life should not center on self or other people or on material or worldly success. Others suggest that Covey's work parallels the Hindu concept of dharma, that a virtuous, principle-centered life is its own reward. Islamic scholars have found the seven habits to be a useful teaching tool. As a Christian and a Mormon, I find in Covey's teachings fundamental insights about character and compassion that are treasured by all Christians and Jews.

In short, all of Covey's readers hear familiar echoes from the wisdom of their own cultures. In a way, this is the power of the seven habits: They are trans-cultural. Integrity, honesty, human dignity, contribution, understanding -- these principles are common to all people. They transcend all boundaries -- political, philosophical, religious, socio-economic, generational, gender, and lifestyle. They apply in any context or in any environment. This is why 7 Habits have been so widely received. Covey's brilliant contribution was to distill these universal principles into a practical framework and language now used by millions of leaders, parents, educators, and students of all ages the world over.

In the 7 Habits book we find our best selves, no matter who we are or where we come from. And we find out how to put in action in our own lives, the timeless truths that are inescapably the source of all human happiness and effectiveness.

So as I started my new year, I opened up The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and found myself, once again, captivated by the possibilities for creating a better Clayton Christensen. Maybe this timeless book can do the same for you.