Answering Clayton Christensen’s Question: A Reflection on the Legacy of a Leader

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Brad Morgran
Director, Bettye B. Lewis Career Center, University of Tennessee College of Law

“How will you measure your life?” This was the question posed by author, business consultant, and Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen in May 2010 during his commencement speech at Harvard Business School. It later became the title of his New York Times bestseller How Will You Measure Your Life?

Today, that question seems more relevant and poignant than it did just two days ago. You see, Mr. Christensen passed away on January 23, 2020. Now, as we read his obituaries, and reflect on his legacy, this idea of how one will measure their life speaks with more urgency.

In reading about him yesterday and today, we are reminded of the tremendous impact that his scholarship had on the business world. For example, his seminal work of The Innovator’s Dilemma brought his theory of disruptive technology into the larger consciousness of the business world and explained—both as a warning and as motivation—how those who understand new technologies and innovations can overturn, or dominate, industries.

In reading about him yesterday and today, we are reminded of the unparalleled list of luminaries and titans of industry that looked to him for counsel and advice. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and now Presidential Candidate Michael Bloomberg all sought his guidance as they navigated changes in markets and forces.

In reading about him yesterday and today, we are reminded of his accessibility on campus to his colleagues, to administration, to alumni, and especially to his students. Former students of his describe how he changed the way that they saw the world; how he helped them to conceptualize not only sound business theory, but also frame their approach to their lives in ways that made sense to them.

All of these accolades—and more—are well deserved. In this moment, I would like to add my voice to others in celebrating his life.

There was a brief window in 2010 between his Harvard commencement speech mentioned above and his stroke that left him with failing health. It was in this window that I was able to encounter—through friends of friends—Mr. Christensen. The encounter was brief, but the ramifications of that moment in time fundamentally altered the course of my life. And, appropriately enough, it began with the question posed in the opening words of this reflection.

“How will you measure your life?” He told us that was the title of the speech and the premise of his message. He had recently given this speech, and he shared with us who were lucky enough to be seated at his table the overall theme of the speech. What he said awakened something in me, and after that meeting, I immediately searched for and was able to secure, a transcript of the speech.

That question sunk deep into my heart: I realized that I did not know the answer to that question. And my inability to answer such an important question about my own life kept me awake at night—literally. I began—sadly, for the first time—to engage in focused self-reflection and analysis. During this pursuit of self-awareness, I made some profound, and candidly uncomfortable, discoveries.

I discovered that my true values were not reflected in my daily work.

I discovered that my true values were not reflected in how I spent my free time.

I discovered that my true values were, in essence, being given lip service only.

And all of these discoveries stung. I was now awake at night for other reasons. However, Mr. Christensen—through his speech—stepped in and offered me hope. He advises those who will listen to “keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.” This is, to me, the focal point of his message. Why? Because, as he states, “[y]our decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.”

In other words, if I want my life’s strategy to be aligned with my values and purpose, then I need to be cognizant of how I allocate my time, energy, and talent—as modest as they may be.

Mr. Christensen does not tell us that heeding his advice will be easy. On the contrary, he acknowledges that challenging self-reflection and difficult decisions await those who embark on this path. But what he does offer is that such a path can lead to the greatest satisfaction—both professionally and personally—that one can obtain in their lives.

As I made difficult decisions to bring my daily work and time allocation more in line with my values, I did face challenges—to be honest, I still do. I do not expect those challenges to ever go away, but simply to evolve. But what I have found is that Mr. Christensen’s formula works for me. I have found more professional and personal satisfaction by pursuing my values with vigor than I ever could have expected or hoped for.

For Mr. Christensen, his values and resource allocation were directly aligned with his closing words from his 2010 speech: “[d]on’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.”

And so, as I reflect on this “metric” that Mr. Christensen employed to measure his life, it is clear to me that he was successful. As society now takes stock of Mr. Christensen’s life and, in some ways, “measures it,” based upon his own formula, I know that he was successful. He helped me and countless others become better people, and it is my hope, aspiration, and how I strive to use my time, to do the same.

Thank you, Mr. Christensen.

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