Sean Covey’s Insights on Habit 1: Be Proactive

Excerpt from “The 30th Anniversary Edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” by Stephen R. Covey and revised and updated with fresh insights by Sean Covey (copyright 2020 by Franklin Covey Co. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.).

We now have a great deal of empirical data that backs up everything my father, Stephen Covey, wrote about proactivity back in 1989. With 20 years of research behind her, Stanford professor Carol Dweck found that most people have one of two mindsets, or paradigms, about their ability to learn: a “fixed” mindset or a “growth” mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe their intelligence and talent are fixed and that there’s not much they can do about it. This is a reactive view of the world. “I’m not good at math” or “I’ve never been good with people, so why try?”

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe their basic abilities can be developed and enhanced through dedication and hard work, a belief that they are in the driver’s seat and can, therefore, improve and change. This proactive view of the world results in proactive thinking and language. “I need to get better with numbers,” or “I can be more considerate of my partner.” 

In like manner, Dr. Martin Seligman, the distinguished director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, explores the benefits of focusing on your Circle of Influence. In his book, “Authentic Happiness,” he concludes that your happiness depends on: 

1. Genetics

2. Circumstances

3. Things you can control

However, his research found that genetics and circumstances have less to do with happiness than the third category—the things you can control. So, to be happy, Seligman suggests, focus on things you can control. 

And then we have Angela Duckworth, also a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who backs up the idea that resourcefulness and initiative (“R&I”) are key predictors of success. Over many years, she studied children and adults in challenging environments, including West Point military cadets, National Spelling Bee contestants, and rookie teachers in difficult schools. In each study, her research team asked the question: “Who is successful here and why?” Across numerous contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success: grit. In her book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Duckworth examines how grit is the quality that allows an individual to work hard and maintain focus—not just for weeks or months, but for years. 

I couldn’t agree with Duckworth more. In my role as an executive, I’ve hired hundreds of people. I used to consider an applicant’s GPA, the school they attended, and the information on their resume. Now I focus on two things: how well they get along with other people, and the way they exercise “R&I,” or what Duckworth calls grit. If they score high on “R&I” and display grit and a growth mindset, I’m confident they will succeed. In fact, “gritty” is now an official characteristic on our hiring profile form.

Proactive Teams and Organizations

Being proactive also applies to teams and organizations, not just individuals. Organizations of all kinds—business, government, education, or the nonprofit sector—face setbacks, market shifts, competition, cycles, and disruptions. And unless they are proactive and learn to adapt and overcome obstacles, they won’t survive. One of our clients in Southeast Asia, a world-class high-tech manufacturer, is a great example of this. They embraced the 7 Habits, training every employee, from the CEO to the front line. They deeply believed in the principles—but then were put to the test. 

At the time, their factory headquarters were experiencing the heaviest rainy season in 50 years. Immense floods drove 13 million people from their homes, and more than 800 people died. It was reported to be the fourth-most expensive natural disaster in world history. Our client was particularly hard hit, with its vast manufacturing facility under nearly six feet of water, devastating an operation that required a zero-dust environment. Experts estimated it would take a billion dollars and at least seven months of cleanup to get even a part of the factory back online, while much of the high-end equipment would require years to replace. Some market reports even predicted the end of the company, which would leave nearly 35,000 workers without jobs. The effects were immediate and global as high-tech manufacturing everywhere ground to a halt without some of these key components.

Our client’s leaders refused the notion that it would take years to get back to work, and they were not going to wait to be rescued. Their leadership team had been trained in the 7 Habits, and they had worked to make the principles their “core operating system.” So, drawing on years of practicing, they put Habit 1: Be Proactive to the ultimate test. 

They immediately spread the word that there would be no layoffs—their employees were like family, and they would get on their feet as one. The safety of their people was their first priority: Crews were organized to help the most stricken employees in their flooded homes. Next up, they hired local navy crews to salvage irreplaceable equipment and get it to dry land for refurbishing. 

While the plants of other big companies in their industrial park rusted in the mud, their workers laid off, our client’s work continued nonstop. Surely it made a difference to keep everyone on the payroll, but rebuilding the business as a team came naturally to these remarkable workers. Tens of thousands, many still trying to cope with crises at home, showed up to revive their plant. Some traveled miles each day from refugee centers, often in small boats or on water oxen for hours a day, determined to help. 

Many found themselves doing jobs they had never done before—hard, muddy labor. Company leaders rolled up their sleeves and toiled alongside line workers. Some who had never met before formed teams and solved problems on the spot. 

As a result, the plant reopened only 15 days after the waters receded. Within a year, it had reclaimed the #1 position in the market. Observers were astonished that it hadn’t taken billions of dollars and many years to recover. All it took was a superb team willing to wade through mud for each other. That is the power of a proactive culture.

Sean Covey will share content from “The 30th Anniversary Edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey and his personal insights in the Webinar, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in 2020,” on April 21. To register visit:

Excerpt from The 30th Anniversary Edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” by Stephen R. Covey and revised and updated with fresh insights by Sean Covey (Copyright 2020 by Franklin Covey Co. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.).

Sean Covey is the president of FranklinCovey Education and is cofounder and chairman of the Bridle Up Hope foundation. He is devoted to transforming education throughout the world through a principle-centered leadership approach. Sean Covey directs FranklinCovey’s whole school transformation process, called Leader in Me®, which is now in more than 5,000 schools and 50 countries throughout the world. He is the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” “The 7 Habits of Happy Kids,” “The 6 Most Important Decisions You’ll Ever Make,” and “The Leader in Me.”