On January 23, 2020, Clayton Christensen passed away at the age of 67.
I found out about his passing during my commute home from work on Friday, and it left me reflecting deeply on my experiences with Clay. I enrolled in his class back in 2000 at HBS, and was fortunate enough to have him agree to be an advisor to me on an independent project on the topic of disruption. Over the years, when I would visit HBS for recruiting or for a case study, I would always try to stop by to see him. Ever gracious and thoughtful, he may have been the most influential professor in my life.
There have been some wonderful pieces written about Clay in the past couple of days, mostly reflecting on his impact on management theory or his lifelong dedication to his family and his church. The list of his accomplishments is appropriately long. However, there are a few personal details I’d like to add to the story.
Many people are familiar with Clay’s work on innovation and disruption, made famous by his 1997 book, The Innovators Dilemma. It’s always shocking to me when I meet people in Silicon Valley who haven’t read it – that’s how fundamental it has been in shaping my thinking about business & strategy.
However, the professor I met at Harvard twenty years ago didn’t talk about innovation, disruption or how to build a successful business. He talked about the morality of business, the ethics of leadership and about his own personal journey.
Clay was a warm and friendly person, but when I first saw in him walk into our class, it was hard to ignore just how tall he was. At Harvard, the third row of seating is known as the “Power Deck” because when seated you are eye-level with the professor. I used to joke that in Clay’s class, it was the fourth row that was the Power Deck.
In some ways, Clay’s height made his approachability and humility even more surprising and authentic.
Clay’s class was supposed to be about strategy, but he opened his first lecture with a discussion of people. He spoke about how we spend most of the hours of our adult lives at work, and how impactful those hours are on the emotional wellbeing of people even outside of work. He asked us to think about great managers we’d had in the past who supported us and gave us energy, and terrible managers who had drained us of it.
And that’s when he told us that he believed that being a great manager was one of great moral responsibility, because your leadership would either make the people who worked for you miserable, or they could bring those people joy & accomplishment.
When Clay talked about leadership, he talked about it with a clarity and conviction that is rare. To this day, when I take on a new leadership position, I talk to my teams about the responsibility I feel to them based on Clay’s words.
Clay’s professional journey also resonated with me. Most people don’t know that Clay himself was a founder, starting a company focused on advanced ceramics back in the 1980s material science boom. It’s a bit of personal trivia, but my first love at Stanford wasn’t Computer Science. It was the Introduction to Material Science that made me decide to major in Engineering.
But after that experience, Clay had decided to go back to school. It is unusual for an MBA to go back to get a PhD, but he went back because he wanted to study management and teach. His passion for a more rigorous framework on how managers make decisions led him to the insights that became The Innovator’s Dilemma, and the career that we all know him for. His fundamental belief that managers were intelligent and capable led him to frame an incredible problem: how do large companies continue to fail when they have access to so many smart people and almost unlimited strategic resources?
However, his choice wasn’t purely motivated by academic or professional interest. He talked openly about his family, his wife and his children, and the life he wanted to create for them. He talked about his faith, and how he wanted to be judged in the end.
Not everyone who is religious leads an exemplary life, but for Clay, his faith seemed to amplify and enforce his ethical rigor. In his later work, he would argue that it was easier to hold the line ethically 100% of the time than 98% of the time, because one compromise leads to another, then another.
How Will You Measure Your Life?
Over the years, when I would visit Clay at HBS, he was always warm and encouraging. We would discuss each career move I made: eBay, LinkedIn, Greylock, Wealthfront. The clarity of his strategic thinking was always a gift, and his willingness to engage and debate when we disagreed was always a bit surprising to me. But Clay loved to sharpen his thinking, and had seemingly no ego tied to defending ideas or business strategies. He just loved finding more insight; a twinkle in his eye in the pursuit of a clearer glimpse of the truth. I always left of our conversations feeling amplified by both his support and his energy.
In 2010, Clay published a piece based on these ideas that became a book by the same name, How Will You Measure Your Life. It is worth reading, and even re-reading.
I have a pretty clear idea of how my ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used my research; I know I’ve had a substantial impact. But as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is to me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.
I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.
Rest in Peace, Clay.