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


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.

Why is The Lawyer Presenting This?


Laura Woods
Senior Counsel, Eastman Chemical Company

I was, admittedly, jarred when the question was asked. It came from a leader at my company, on the heels of his heaping praise about my presentation, its effectiveness, its engagement, its overall rock-the-world awesomeness (okay, I added that last superlative; but that was definitely the vibe I was getting from him).

“Why wouldn’t I be doing this?” was the response I wanted to blurt back. But the questioner had a point. It wasn’t technically legal work. I wasn’t quoting statutes, CFRs, or case law, nor was I offering legal advice. My presentation certainly called upon my years of practice experience, sharing with my colleagues the various learnings and results from numerous root cause analyses my team had performed during the last year. There wasn’t a §, et seq., or Bluebook citation to be found in it.

My company had not needed me to show my legal research prowess. We had a developing situation on our hands that required action, not Westlaw. The company had looked to me to create, drive, and deliver on a plan that was going to directly and effectively tamp down what was happening. There was this weird thing, though – I was already working on the plan. I hadn’t waited on anyone in the organization to tell me it needed me to lead it. I just assumed that was what I was to do, and I was doing it.

Over the course of my time as a lawyer, I’ve found that less and less of my time is spent quoting the applicable statute or thumbing through (yes, I still use paper) the Family and Medical Leave Act regulations, for example. This has born true in both my private practice and in-house roles.

In fact, there are times I question whether I should even be in the law department at my company. The occasional contract question arises that necessitates an interpretation; or Risk Management engages me to assess potential liability and exposure. You know – traditional lawyer “stuff.”

Thus, why do I wonder whether I belong in the law department? Why would I be any less of a lawyer in successfully creating, implementing, and executing a plan that addresses change management and culture learnings? Why would my role in leading us to a successful outcome be considered odd because it wasn’t a “lawyer” thing?

I’m here to challenge the thinking that a lawyer is only someone who does the traditional “stuff,” and you’re almost a freak of nature if you venture away from that.

Every day, we, as lawyers, find ourselves filling a vacuum when others will not or do not. In my most recent situation, I didn’t give anyone else an opportunity to do it. The situation was that important to me; the consequences, at least in my eyes, were so stiff that I thought it was my duty and obligation to stand in front. No one challenged me on my role. And I think we, as lawyers, are more like that version of Laura than the one that can quote you chapter and verse on when an employer becomes covered under the FMLA.

Our profession requires us to identify a situation, discuss options, and offer recommendations. At my work, this process is embraced by the acronym SOR: situation, option(s), recommendation(s). (In our defense – we are a company of many, many engineers; creativity might not be one of our top 5 StrengthsFinder.) That is a powerful skill set when everything is sideways. Certainly, times will arise when the options and recommendations are driven by statutes, regulations, or other legal guidance.

During those times that the situation calls for non-traditional “stuff,” I hope you don’t shy away or say, “Why would a lawyer do that?” Getting that juris doctorate was not easy, and you have to be of a certain mettle to throw your hat into that ring. Step in, step up, and step out of the traditional lawyer mold. I dare say your client will appreciate you for doing so, and you will grow in your expertise. The world is changing at a fever pitch; why shouldn’t we in our roles as legal partners?

Presence is Priceless


Tippany Patrick
Third-Year Law Student, University of Tennessee College of Law

Recently a student organization called Vols for Veterans, VFV for short, hosted a fundraising dinner for the General Clifton Cates Leadership Scholarship. The focus of the event this year centered on a phrase written by General Clifton Cates himself while he was serving during The Great War. With few men by his side and deliverance all but impossible, General Cates ended a penned note to his leadership with the words, “I will hold.”

Eighty-nine years later, almost to the day, another young marine was called back to action while enjoying his statutorily protected time at home. Sitting at a table with his parents, LT Travis Manion looked at his father and stated that he would answer the call. Dumbfounded, his father questioned the decision, but Manion simply replied, “If not me, then who?”

VFV formed itself around the spirit of these mantras.

Personally, I try to live every moment with the “if not me” mentality. At times I fall short. But imagine the difference we could make if just once a day we thought “if not me.” Imagine the impact of this mindset, if even half the world woke up and thought this mantra. This change in mentality would catalyze the kind of relentlessness that is just annoying enough to be effective.

What I love about this saying is its endless applicability—it applies when you walk by a piece of trash, when you see someone digging for change to buy a cup of coffee, and when you see a cause in desperate need of a champion. The beauty of asking “if not me” is that it brings thought to action. More often than not people can talk a big game about all the great ideas they have, but true leaders know how to cast those visions to bring forth a better reality.

True leaders act.

The truth is that legacies are rarely created by words alone. When I had the honor of becoming the current president of VFV, I asked myself and my team, “What is next?” More specifically, I asked my fellow third-year students, “What do we want to leave behind?” I see now that the heart of my questions was this, “What is our legacy going to be?”

In those discussions, I found a common theme—stability. Stability in our organization. Stability in our support of veterans. And stability in our community engagement.

Armed with this common theme, I walked into our first executive board meeting and wrote this mission statement on the whiteboard: “To create a sustainable internal structure that will allow College of Law students to continue this work well past the graduation of current students.”

My team and I brainstormed what this mission might look like in action. We had some great thoughts but no clue how to implement those ideas. This struggle reminded me of a lesson I learned long ago: true leaders know what they don’t know but they know the people who can help.

You, here, reading this blog post are the people who can help. You are the key to our success, and you are how we can take great ideas and turn them into actions—actions which become legacies.

I argue that the biggest need of any organization—or leadership team—is your time and your presence. In my opinion, time is far more costly than any check you can write.

With that in mind, I present each of you with a challenge:

Students, you need to find time in your busy schedules to show up to events. It’s time that we, as the next generation of professionals, start showing up for each other. Let’s start investing our time in one another so that we’re ingrained to invest time in our community after the graduation bells toll. Let’s take action and build a legacy together.

To everyone else, you need to show up too. As leaders, you all have skills, talents, and resources that can be used to benefit your community. You need to be involved in the social movements happening around you and you need to support progress. Despite the challenges we may face, the future is so incredibly bright.

I have hope that we all will answer this call, because I see leaders that will provide stability for future generations—leaders that will say “[We] will hold.” And I see a world that will ask, “If not [us], then who?”

It’s Not a Matter of Position but Disposition

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Vyrone Cravanas
Senior Advisor, Human Resources and Communications Executive Vice-President
Tennessee Valley Authority
Knoxville, Tennessee

According to Wikipedia, Boss’s Day is generally observed on or around October 16th in the United States. It has been pitched as a day for employees to thank their bosses for being kind and fair throughout the year, but some have opposed the concept as nothing more than a meaningless Hallmark Holiday and critiqued it for placing undue pressure on employees to kowtow to managers who earn more than them and exercise power over them. With all due respect to bosses around the world, my exception to Boss’s Day has nothing to do with its concept. Instead, my problem is with its title.

I believe that being someone’s boss is simply a matter of position, totally unworthy of observance, laudation or acclaim. Conversely, leadership is something that should be observed, celebrated and praised. Unlike positional authority, true leadership is grounded in one’s disposition. My father would tell me that there are only two types of people, “those you can’t wait to see, and those whom you can’t wait to see leave!” I think the same applies to leaders and bosses.

During the course of my 40-year legal career, I have been blessed with the opportunity to lead various teams of professionals, including service center clerks, diversity and inclusion experts, legal interns, and regulatory compliance lawyers. I have been equally fortunate to work for some wonderful individuals, who happened to be my bosses, which is particularly true in my current role as Senior Advisor for TVA’s Human Resources and Communications Executive Vice-President.

Through the experiences accumulated from my career, I’ve learned that leadership is not bestowed upon an individual because of their hierarchical title in an organization. Quite the contrary! Leadership is an honor someone earns for distinguished service, and it can only be awarded by those they lead. Leadership requires us to consistently demonstrate our character, commitment, and competence to engage others, and to inspire them to continuously drive towards achieving our desired business outcomes. Each of the most effective and beloved leaders I’ve worked for and strived to emulate had a clear vision of what’s best for the organization, a service-oriented mindset, and an ability to build strong relationships. Putting others first, honesty and fairness are among their top core values. In other words, it was never a matter of their position, but always a result of their disposition!

Before Assisting Others


Beth Ford
Federal Defender Services of Eastern Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee

Over the past few months, I have traveled a great deal for work. Even though I have heard the speech dozens of times, I always try to listen to the safety briefing of the flight attendants—it just seems like a good idea when one will be in a metal tube 35,000 feet about the earth traveling at 500 miles per hour. Of course, one of the things that the flight attendants always tell passengers is to put your air mask on first before assisting others. In other words, take care of yourself before you try to take care of anyone else.

I have learned in the past month that the air mask rule is directly applicable to the practice of law, to being a competent attorney, and to being an effective leader. In the legal profession, we all seem to think that we are Wonder Women and Supermen. We like to try to impress each other with the number of hours that we work and how we get by on little sleep. Most of us say that we are in this profession to help others but taking care of ourselves is viewed as a sign of weakness or as having a lack of commitment to the jealous mistress.

The Preamble to the Rules of Professional Responsibility say that the essential characteristics of the lawyer include thoroughness of preparation and practical and prudential wisdom. Lawyers should be competent, prompt, and diligent. Specifically, Rule 1.1 says, “[a] lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” How is it possible to perform competently if one is sleep deprived, impaired by alcohol or drugs, or overwhelmed by stress? Answer: it is not possible.

There is a recent American Automobile Association study that found drivers who miss two to three hours of sleep a day more than quadruple their risk of getting in a crash compared to drivers who sleep for seven hours. The accident risk from drowsy driving is comparable to driving drunk. Would you go to court drunk?

I had an “Arianna Huffington” moment about a month ago, and I decided that I was not doing any favors to my office, clients, the dozen or so organizations that I have found myself committed to, or to my family or myself if I continued the craziness. For me, the craziness is thinking that I have to be involved in everything and thinking that I can save time by sleeping and exercising less. It does not work—and finding myself overnight in a hospital 500 miles away from home was a wakeup call. (The good news is that it was dehydration and exhaustion.)

As a result of my body objecting loudly, I have put together a list of things to try to do on my journey to wellness. I will let you know how it goes, and I would love to hear what you all do to strive for wellness. Because in order to be competent lawyers and effective leaders, we must take care of ourselves to be in the position to take care of others. Here’s that list:

1. Put your family relationships first.
2. Make friends who are not lawyers.
3. Learn to prioritize and manage time.
4. Take care of your health: mental, physical, and spiritual.
6. Do nice things for others and show gratitude to others.
7. Take cleansing breaths at the beginning and end of the day. Try a little meditation.
8. Have a hobby or two.
9. Live beneath your means.
10. Give away time and money.

And—of course—always remember, “Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.”