Clayton Christensen photo by World Economic Forum Wikimedia Commons

Clayton Christensen
photo by World Economic Forum
Wikimedia Commons

In tech circles, we tend to hand out to others the books that impress us. I once did that with a book called Focus, buying over 100 copies for a company that really needed to focus! (They didn’t listen, but that’s another story.)

One day in the early 2000s, a very driven tech exec gave me a book: The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Urgently, he told me to read it.

He was right: this book was an inspiration for me. With example after example, it showed that a company that has leading technology will always suppress disruptive innovation from within, for a very good reason: it upsets the existing business.

Examples ranged from Caterpillar’s replacement of the steam shovel with its diesel-driven machine, to the steel industry, and to the disk drive business. In every case, the author meticulously detailed his point: constant innovation in technology means that leaders are never safe. And it is only getting worse.

The author was Clayton Christensen. One leader who paid close attention (and many didn’t), was legendary Intel CEO, the late Andy Grove. Grove realized that Intel was about to lose to a new generation of consumer chips. He came out with the Celeron chip and ensured Intel’s continued survival in the winner-take-all world of computer chips. All thanks to Christensen’s advice.

Clayton Christensen, who passed away recently, was a renowned academic. The term he invented, “disruptive innovation”, is part of business language today. Beyond Andy Grove, he deeply influenced technology leaders like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Netflix’s Reed Hastings.

As Tad Walch wrote in the Deseret News, “A true disruptive innovation, he taught, first appealed only to a niche market and appeared less attractive than the powerful incumbent it eventually usurped. In fact, the incumbent typically looked down on it as inconsequential until it ate up huge swaths of its market share.”

Clayton influenced me deeply. But what I didn’t know at the time was that he was a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that his faith was central to how he became so influential.

How did faith and work become intertwined for this great man? Clayton’s son Michael spoke at his recent funeral. As Walch also reported, “Michael said his father’s first teaching job at Harvard went poorly until he explained his struggles to a man next to him on a plane. The man advised him to teach with greater love. So, before his next operations class, he knelt in prayer in his office to ask God to allow his students to feel God’s love for them through his teaching.

“These prayers were answered,” Michael said. “It didn’t matter if Dad was teaching students about supply chains, manufacturing job shops or disruptive innovation, somehow his students could feel a sense of love in those classrooms, and not just Dad’s love for his students, but something greater.”

It was a hinge point in his life.

His daughter Ann said, if he had been at the funeral, “He could go through this audience and tell us all why he loves each of you.” It isn’t enough to be a transformative thinker. Because ordinarily, most people just don’t listen. If you want to change people’s lives, perhaps it is essential that your own life be changed in transformative ways.

Oliver Staley interviewed Christensen for Quartz, and asked him how he managed to integrate God into his teachings. The answer: “What I find is actually when I give a presentation at the school or out of the school, I always try to reference in some way or signal to people in the audience that I actually believe in God. And a large proportion of the people in the audience will come up to me afterwards and say, I’m glad that you referenced your faith in God because I believe in God and I’m afraid to say that. It’s just a shame that people who believe that they’re truthful in academia impose their beliefs on people who believe. I think it’s like another silent majority. I’m grateful that I can stand up.” Perhaps, then, more of us center our lives around faith than our modern society is willing to admit.

I am a lifetime Scientologist. I once worked with Scientology Founder L. Ron Hubbard, and I continue to study his writings to this day. And, too, these studies transformed my life. Because as a child, I used to wonder with my Mom what could be a true faith. So I understand Clayton Christensen, because he got his technology insights from understanding people, and their own spiritual core. And that, in turn, made people love, respect, and listen to him.

Hubbard wrote, “Affinity begets affinity. A person who is filled with the quality will automatically find people anywhere near him also beginning to be filled with affinity. It is a calming, warming, heartening influence on all who are capable of receiving and giving it.”(1)

I think that resonates with what we know of Clayton Christensen. He was great, and influential, not just because he was a great thinker (and he was), but because his love, grounded in his faith, attracted others to him. And if there is any basis for faith it is this: the creation of an expanding circle of transforming influence, exerted by any being who possesses such complete love for his fellow man.

(1) L. Ron Hubbard, The Theory of Affinity, Reality and Communication, Dianetics Auditor’s Bulletin, February 1951.