Clayton Christensen (1952-2020): A Case Study for Life

The Harvard Business School professor and author of thinking disruptively was not unfamiliar to credit unions.

A number of years ago, I heard him at a reunion panel describe why he thought education, especially post high school, was ripe for disruptive innovation. After all, most knowledge is digital, improved real time virtual interactions were feasible, and the scalability of online reach is limitless.

At the close he said he would be putting his analysis into action by launching an online offering for the Harvard Business School called HBX (now rebranded as HBSO). The focus would be applying disruptive thinking to any organization coping with change.

I caught up afterwards and told him that Callahan would be very interested in seeing if his new course might be open to credit unions. He gave me his business card and turned it over to show me his assistant whom we should contact.

Several months later the Callahan team visited Cambridge and the founders of HBX in their temporary offices to seek ways we might tailor the course for credit unions. This was done. The first course was launched in 2014 called Disruptive Strategy with Clayton Christensen. A second offering is now available: Sustainable Business Strategy with Rebecca Hendersen.

Success in Life is More than Course Work

But what I remember most about Clayton’s thinking were his periodic comments on the personal qualities of leadership. A most readable example is How will you measure your life?

The paragraph that struck me is:

On the last day of class, I ask my students to turn those theoretical lenses on themselves, to find cogent answers to three questions: First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail? Though the last question sounds lighthearted, it’s not. Two of the 32 people in my Rhodes scholar class spent time in jail. Jeff Skilling of Enron fame was a classmate of mine at HBS. These were good guys—but something in their lives sent them off in the wrong direction.

That is Not the Brand We Stand For

A personal story that captured this unique combination of moral and professional leadership is what he reminded his children when one of them had been accused of pushing another student.

He told them that is not who we are: “The brand that the Christensens are known for is kindness.”

And that is why I received his business card that summer afternoon.

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