Mankind was his business - remembering Clayton Christensen
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Last week, Professor Clayton Christensen passed away. Clayton taught at Harvard Business School (HBS) for the last several decades and was known for writing and teaching about disruptive innovation in business, medicine, and education. You can read gracious remembrances of him in the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and other places.
I knew Clayton first as a religious leader. During my freshman year at Boston University, Clayton served as the bishop, the lay pastor of a congregation of young single adults in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In addition to partnering with his amazing wife Christine to raise a large family and researching and teaching at HBS, Clayton spent countless hours voluntarily ministering to the whole congregation and to individual members. What I remember learning from Clayton that year are these things: how to seek and receive divine revelation, how to love and serve my fellow women and men, and how and why being true to your convictions 100% of the time is easier than doing so 98% of the time.
Many years later, in 2009, Clayton visited Nashville to speak at the annual conference of the Education Commission of the States. He was invited because of a book he'd coauthored about disruptive trends in education. But he spoke about milkshakes and what job kids might -- but also might not -- hire school to do for them. You can watch the whole talk. But here's the punchline (which he gets to around 12 minutes into the talk). Young people, Christensen said, aren't "hiring" school to learn Algebra or Spanish. Young people want to feel successful and have fun with their friends, every day. So, he invited the educators and policymakers to consider, are schools--as presently operated--performing that job for young people? And, I wondered, how am I doing in that regard as a parent?
When I found out Clayton was coming to Nashville, where I lived, I contacted him to see if he had a little time to meet with me. He kindly agreed to have breakfast with me, and crammed his six foot eight frame into my small car. At one point, he said, "Rich, I've had this terrible thing happen to me!" I was afraid he was going to tell me of a terminal illness. Instead, he told me that as his work became well-known and he was asked to speak and provide insights to groups around the world, he had less and less time to see what was actually happening "on the ground," with the subjects of his research: people whose work and lives he wanted to influence in a positive way.
For such a tall man, he was always humbly grounded. I'm grateful to have known the business professor who was always lifting other people. He once wrote,
Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team. More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.