Outside the Box: We’d all be better off in business and in life if we followed the teachings of this revered professor
We have never needed consistent decency from the leaders our institutions more than we do now. What would Clayton Christensen say about this?
Christensen, who died last January, is best-known for showing how new businesses can upend established industries and capture market share, often with deceptively simple and cheap products. This was called “disruptive innovation.”
Christensen is revered, however, for how he lived his life.
While he possessed a sharp, analytical mind, Christensen made it a point to have the best questions, not the best answers. The most important question, he told his students at the Harvard Business School, is how will you measure your life? How you will be happy in your career? How will you have healthy relationships? How will you stay out of jail?
What Christensen was asking these students, on the cusp of careers in the corporate world, was will you be ethical? For Christensen was an ethical man. That this should be newsworthy in 2020 says more about the times we live in than it does Christensen.
Ethics is all about the flourishing of human beings. By asking questions that focus on career, relationships, and integrity, Christensen boiled life down to certain fundamentals: What will you do with your life? How will you treat the people in it? Will you live a life of consistent decency — commonly referred to as integrity?
Christensen is lauded for his ability to take complex theories and distill them into understandable pieces that could be used by people in business. In applied ethics, we are trying to do a similar task — to break down ethical theories so people can use them to make decisions that demonstrate care and concern for others.
The most important thing that Christensen did, by his own account, was resist answering the questions businesspeople asked. Instead, he taught them his theories and the questions they should contemplate to reach their own conclusions. The most effective teachers understand the power of this approach.
People call the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, the organization where I work in leadership ethics, looking for answers. They often are frustrated when we give them a set of questions to use themselves. It’s a Socratic approach, much like the one used at Harvard Business School where Christensen thrived, renowned for its use of the case method and the asking of questions.
History already looks kindly on Christensen, and this kindness will only increase. This is appropriate, as one of the things he taught members of his family is that they would be known as a kind family. He appreciated the power of creating a healthy culture, even at home.
Christensen believed that he could learn something from everyone he met — not just the smartest or the richest people. The very nature of his questions focused a student on others, beyond herself. With them, Christensen teaches us not about things in business that we can apply to life, but rather that the world works better when life’s lessons are applied in business.
Christensen guides us, through his questions, to be intentional as we go through life, to know ourselves well and reflect on our purpose regularly. He emphasizes the importance of relationships and the purposeful deployment of resources to create a culture that supports the life you want to lead. He drew on his Mormon faith, yet so many of these ideals are encouraged by other major faiths, including the Jesuit, Catholic tradition that guides me and my colleagues at Santa Clara University.
Many will read Christensen’s short but powerful book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” and use it as a guide to business. The more fortunate will take his questions to heart and use them to guide their lives. This is Christensen’s greatest legacy — teaching us how to be better people.