Clayton Christensen (1952-2020): Measuring the life of a gentle giant

Published: January 28, 2020 12:59:31 AM

When I was at HBS, I got a request from the top leadership of the Tatas who wanted to bring him onto the TCS board—they had approached him, and he was reluctant given the distances and time commitment.

With Clay Christensen’s passing away, the world has lost not just a great thinker and teacher, but, more importantly, a 24-carat gold authentic, rare creation of the Lord, almost in his own reflection.

By Srivatsa Krishna 

At 6 feet 8 inches, Clayton Christensen had both height and stature. As he walked up to me at the Skydeck at Harvard Business School (HBS), showed me the picture of poor children in an orphanage in Chennai, to who he had donated thousands of dollars, he whispered, “Vatsa, can you please find out for me if the money reached them and is being used well?” He didn’t know them; they just wrote to him, and Clay, generous to a fault, wrote a big cheque for them without ever having known or met them. This was one of Clay’s many acts of philanthropy—a devout Mormon, a loving family man, an extraordinary teacher, an authentic friend, and above all God’s own man, is how I remember him.

His life, by itself, is like a Harvard case study on how to lead a life of high morality, unparalleled kindness and conduct. Amongst Clay’s final books was ‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’ which is a summary of his being, soul and spirit—I would strongly recommend every parent to make this a mandatory reading for their children when they complete schooling, for it is a remarkable instruction manual of life.

Clay’s trilogy on innovation remains a bible till date, and his greatest academic contribution was to bring innovation to the centre stage of academia and also to make his research valuable to the corporate sector, the actionable insights of which were acknowledged and hugely valued, among others, by Andy Grove of Intel, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings. I had the privilege of writing a paper with Clayton Christensen on how to create disruptive innovation in policy and helped a bit with his consulting through the firm he had set up, called Innosight. He advised the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, on creating an innovation cluster there, and his travels through Asia won him numerous admirers. What came across while working alongside Clay was not just his extraordinary repertoire of skills, but his amazing ability to turn theory into action, which not too many of even the greatest professors possess in their arsenal.

When I was at HBS, I got a request from the top leadership of the Tatas who wanted to bring him onto the TCS board—they had approached him, and he was reluctant given the distances and time commitment. I went over to his home for dinner and requested him to consider TCS’s request. He smiled and said, “How can I ever say no to you?” He accepted it immediately and stayed on their board for more than a decade. In fact, Clay and his daughter were stranded in the infamous Mumbai floods, first inside a car for hours, which he would recount to me later with childlike enthusiasm.

I had the privilege of knowing him, his entire family and personal staff, most importantly his dignified and devoted wife Christine who stood by him at every step as he battled a debilitating cancer, which was preceded by a heart attack and a stroke. Mere mortals would have given up and gone away, but not Clay—despite the stroke, he would go in a wheelchair to teach at HBS, for a course that one of the most sought after and oversubscribed. Christine stood like a rock beside him, as did his children, all through the trials and tribulations, and when I met him last earlier this year at a hospital in Cambridge, he promised me that he will be back to teach soon and come to India to deliver a major lecture that was being planned.

Alas, that was not to be. Clayton Christensen got into the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame recently, and pulled my leg that he followed me there (whereas it was always the other way round).

He would always keep encouraging me to use my intellect and karma to do larger good for India and the world, and often generously recommended me to some of the top-most companies in the world. He said you have done one lifetime in public service, now do the next one in the private sector to create and share wealth. I am now, after completing over two decades in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), standing at the cusp of making his prophetic advice hopefully happen soon, through his blessings.

With Clay Christensen’s passing away, the world has lost not just a great thinker and teacher, but, more importantly, a 24-carat gold authentic, rare creation of the Lord, almost in his own reflection. We all, his students and friends, carry a little bit of Clayton Christensen in us, and will keep him alive forever.

The author is an IAS officer. Views are personal

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