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Influential HBS Prof Clayton Christensen Dies

Harvard’s Clay Christensen was a masterful, spell-binding teacher and one of the world’s great thought leaders

Clayton Christensen, one of the most influential professors in the long history of Harvard Business School, died yesterday (Jan. 23) of complications from the treatment of leukemia.

Christensen, 67, had been battling cancer and other health setbacks for a number of years. Ten years ago, he suffered from lymphoma and a stroke. He died on Thursday at a Massachusetts hospital surrounded by his family. 

Author of the pathbreaking book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail,’’ the six-foot-eight professor was a favorite of many tech pioneers. Intel co-founder Andy Grove championed Christensen’s thoughts on disruptive innovation as well as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller. One of the most influential books on management practice and strategy, it has been sold in more than 25 countries and has been translated into different languages 10 times over. Christensen became one of the world’s foremost management gurus and his ideas lit a fire in both the consulting and conference businesses for many years.

IDEAS SO POWERFUL THAT THEY SPAWNED CRITICS

Indeed, the book’s influence on management thought was so significant that it ultimately drew criticism from those eager to debunk it. In perhaps the ultimate accolade of Christensen’s success, The New Yorker published a lengthy assault on his theories in 2014, asserting that his “sources are often dubious and his logic questionable.”

Written by Jill Lepore, then a New Yorker staff writer as well as a professor of history at Harvard, the critique noted that among other things Christensen launched in 2000 a $3.8-million Disruptive Growth Fund that leveraged his theory to select stocks. “Less than a year later, the fund was quietly liquidated: during a stretch of time when the Nasdaq lost 50% of its value, the Disruptive Growth Fund lost 64%. In 2007, Christensen told Business Week that ‘the prediction of the theory would be that Apple won’t succeed with the iPhone,’ adding, ‘History speaks pretty loudly on that.’ In its first five years, the iPhone generated $150 billion of revenue.”

Years later, Christensen would start another investment fund, Disruptive Innovations GP, LLC, that would lead to a legal dispute with a former manager who claimed that the scholar tried to renege on an ownership stake that he claims had been promised him. As the value of the manager’s stake climbed considerably, he claimed in a lawsuit, he was first lowballed in a buyout offer before Christensen and a son, Matthew Christensen, began threatening legal action to avoid having to pay altogether.

Despite the controversies, however, Christensen’s impact on management thought remained intact. He was consistently viewed as a superstar at Harvard, much in demand as a teacher, scholar and speaker who could command fees of $100,000 for a single talk. Besides The Innovator’s Dilemma, he also authored eight other books and more than a hundred articles.  Each year the McKinsey Award is given to the best two articles published in the Harvard Business Review; Christensen has received this award five times.

‘HIS LOSS WILL BE FELT DEEPLY THROUGHOUT OUR COMMUNITY’

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria said the school was heartbroken to learn of Christensen’s death. “His loss will be felt deeply throughout our community,” said Nohria in a statement. “Clayton’s brilliance and kindness were equally evident to everyone he met, and his legacy will be long-lasting. Through his research and teaching, he fundamentally shaped the practice of business and influenced generations of students and scholars.”

His HBS colleagues are effusive in their praise of him. Marco Iansiti, chair of the school’s technology and operations group, called him “the most influential, amazing, controversial, business thinker of his generation.  The disruption concept is easily the most impactful business concept of the last few decades. But I am going to miss him the most because he was a graceful and kindhearted person and became more and more so as his health troubles escalated. A true inspiration in the face of adversity,” wrote Iansiti in a LinkedIn post.

In shaping many conversations about innovation, Christensen did not shy away from controversy. When Dean Nohria greenlit the school’s online initiative, then called HBX in 2014, the famous scholar became a public critic. Christensen, who had predicted that half of the universities in the U.S. could face bankruptcy within 15 years due to technology, questioned whether HBX was radical enough to allow HBS to survive the threat posed by online education. His views even sparked a public squabble with Harvard’s other superstar prof, Michael Porter.

In some cases, Christensen allowed, companies have “survived disruption, but in every case, they set up an independent business unit that let people learn how to play ball in the new game,” he told The New York Times. HBX, he argued, is too closely tied to the business school and not disruptive enough. “What they’re doing is, in my language, a sustaining innovation. It’s not truly disruptive.”

‘I WORRY THAT WE’RE A LITTLE TOO TECHNOLOGICALLY AMBITIOUS’

The only way for a market leader like HBS to survive disruptive innovation, believed the professor, is by disrupting their existing businesses themselves with an offering that is inexpensive, open and simple. Instead, Harvard began its foray into online education with a proprietary platform and a new product that does not cannibalize its existing programs. “I think that we’ve way overshot the needs of customers,” Christensen said. “I worry that we’re a little too technologically ambitious.”

A devout Mormon, Clayton undertook missionary work in the Republic of Korea from 1971 to 1973. He earned his B.A. with highest honors in economics from Brigham Young University in 1975 and an M.Phil. in applied econometrics from Oxford University in 1977 where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. He received an MBA with High Distinction from the Harvard Business School in 1979, graduating as a Baker Scholar. In 1982 Christensen was named a White House Fellow, and served through 1983 as an assistant to U.S. Transportation Secretaries Drew Lewis and Elizabeth Dole. After earning his DBA from HBS in 1992, he joined Harvard’s faculty. Christensen became a faculty member in 1992 and was awarded a full professorship with tenure in 1998.

Fluent in Korean, Christensen thought his dream job was exactly what he did with his life. He once told Poets&Quants that the best part of his job was “seeing my students go on to personal and professional success after graduation.” The worst part?”Spending time away from my wife and five children.” He received rave reviews from students for his teaching prowess. “It’s the only class I don’t need a coffee in,” one MBA student told Poets&Quants. “The fact that I am here at 8:30 a.m. and awake the entire time says it all,” said another.

Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, called Christensen “the consummate Socratic-style professor — as the Harvard Business School teaches its faculty to be — seeking not to provide answers, but instead to ask questions to help people learn how to think, not what to think. He avoided conflict. Only rarely would someone, in his opinion, so cross the bounds of fairness or intellectual honesty that they deserved a rebuke, in which case few could be as withering and pointed in their criticisms. But for the most part, he met criticism with kindness, challenges as opportunities, and interactions as chances to inspire and praise.”

‘MANAGEMENT IS THE MOST NOBLE OF PROFESSIONS IF IT’S PRACTICED WELL’

While his insights on disruptive innovation, which led The Economist to single out “The Innovator’s Dilemma” as one of its six best business books ever, he also received significant notice for his thoughts on the meaning of life, first articulated in 2010 before Harvard Business School’s graduating class.

Drawing upon his business research, he offered a series of guidelines for finding meaning and happiness in life. He used examples from his own experiences to explain how high achievers can all too often fall into traps that lead to unhappiness.

The speech was memorable not only because it was deeply revealing but also because it came at a time of intense personal reflection: Christensen had just overcome the same type of cancer that had taken his father’s life. As Christensen struggled with the disease, the question “How do you measure your life?” became more urgent and poignant, and he began to share his thoughts more widely with family, friends, and students.

“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,’’ he wrote in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article entitled “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

A captivating teacher and speaker, Christensen was called “maybe the best teacher I’ve ever known” by Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, where Mr. Christensen was a board member and trustee emeritus. LeBlanc said that Christensen’s presence on the board gave the school national credibility “when no one knew us and we were just starting our journey from unknown to a national entity.”

Christensen leaves his wife, Christine, five children, and six siblings,

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.