Clayton Christensen’s Biggest Idea

Christensen, one of the most influential business thinkers of the last fifty years, died at 67. "At the end of my life when God looks at what I accomplished, it will always be assessed at the level of individual people."

Clayton Christensen

Just over a year ago, my colleague Wayne Cooper and I spent a memorable morning in Clayton Christensen’s cramped, memento-filled office at Harvard Business School, doing an interview for Chief Executive. Despite a string of illnesses that left him physically fragile, his eyes were bright and his mind was racing as he discussed the findings from his most recent book, The Prosperity Paradox, exploring how capitalism is used as a force for improving the lives of billions around the world—and how business leaders should look for passed-over markets around the globe to find the biggest opportunities. (You can read the interview here.)

Christensen died Friday. He was 67. The Wall Street Journal reports that the cause was Leukemia.

It was a wonderful session, one of those mornings that reminds you how lucky you are to have this job. A longtime Harvard Business School professor, Christensen, as readers here know, was one of the most influential business thinkers of the last fifty years. With his book The Innovators Dilemma, he showed how technological advances can lead to upheaval for entrenched companies and industries—popularizing the idea of “disruptive innovation,” which has come, more than any other single term, to characterize our era. He was also a deeply religious and spiritual man, a devout Mormon who’s 2010 article “How Will You Measure Your Life” is an appeal to business people to think beyond standard measures of success.

During our time with Christensen, we asked him—what it was that kept him so optimistic that there are always solutions to be found, that there are inexhaustible innovations that can continue to improve the world? His response wasn’t what we expected, but it is a memorable coda to a life well lived, and a reminder to the rest of us about what’s truly important. It’s also a pretty good leadership tip:

“Personally, I have a propensity to try to figure out the causal mechanism behind good phenomena. One day, just on my own, I decided that God doesn’t hire accountants in heaven. What I mean by that is you and I have finite minds and we have to hire accountants to calculate what the invoices coming in and going out need to be and are we winning or losing on gross margins. We have to hire accountants because we have limited minds, we can’t keep all of the detail in our minds at once. We get a sense of hierarchy. So people who are presiding over bigger numbers tend to be viewed as more important than people who preside over smaller numbers. That’s the way we’ve organized our lives.

“I realized that God has an infinite mind and because God has an infinite mind he doesn’t have to aggregate people into numbers. For me, that has just been a driving, truly a driving insight, that God does not have to aggregate people but rather, at the level of individual people, God can understand completely what’s going on in this world, he has an infinite mind. Therefore, I better get busy and figure out how I will measure my life so that at the end of my life when God looks at what I accomplished, it will always be assessed at the level of individual people.

“My hope is that if that’s the way you think about life, then you as a manager are in a marvelous position. Because every day, I go home from work and think about how could I help the people who work for me to become good people that day?

“The innovation in the middle of that stuff is really important to help people become better people because you always want to give them more opportunities. If you believe in God, then you have to go through this logic about how God will assess my life. I think it makes me…it drives me to be a better manager.”

You can read the The Wall Street Journal’s obituary of Christensen here.

Dan Bigman
Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net and Boardmember.com. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.