The Disruptor

On a July 2010 Sunday morning Clayton M. Christensen (BA ’75) towered above a 6:30 a.m. gathering of bishoprics in the Cambridge, Mass., stake center. With one hand in his suit pocket, the other gesturing confidently, the high council representative applied the tools of his craft—stories and studies, trends and testimony—to a favorite subject: member missionary work. A Harvard professor, world-renowned business thinker, best-selling author, keynote speaker, and dauntless sharer of the gospel, Christensen had spent a life refining the art of words for moments just like this.

Christensen’s oldest son, Matthew, was in attendance that morning, following the familiar stories and themes flowing through his father’s words when, suddenly, “he just stopped making sense,” Matthew remembers. Midsentence, his father had crossed some invisible boundary. “Sounds would come out, occasionally words,” Matthew says, “but none of it made any sense.”

Seconds later, the two nearly 7-foot-tall men stood face-to-face. Could this be a stroke? Matthew wondered. His dad’s face looked symmetrical. When they grasped arms to shuffle Clayton through the crowded room to an open seat, Matthew noticed that both of his dad’s arms felt equally strong. Over two years his 58-year-old father had fought through a string of maladies—a heart attack, lymphoma, a detached retina. But now Matthew suspected his dad—30 years a type-1 diabetic—might be experiencing a sugar low.

When an oral infusion of Skittles and Snickers from Clayton’s briefcase made no difference, they decided to check his blood sugar—which read high, not low. A neurological radiologist in attendance then administered a quick neurological exam, and Clayton failed miserably. Sensing this was an emergency, they rushed him to Massachusetts General Hospital, just across the Charles River.

At the hospital they soon learned that a blood clot had lodged in a vessel in Christensen’s brain above his left ear—the area where speech is formulated. Doctors administered a clot-busting drug, and thanks to the quick response, Christensen’s life had once again been spared.

His speech, however, had not.

In a Forbes magazine article, Christensen would later explain that it was as though the mental filing cabinet where words are stored had been tipped over, throwing everything out of place. And now it was up to him to painstakingly sort through the mess and refile everything in his brain’s right hemisphere. Along with therapy sessions, Christensen began making vocabulary lists and picked up software for learning English, which he used to challenge his 6-year-old granddaughter Madeline to noun-naming competitions. “She just beat the pants off me,” he admits.

Progress was maddeningly slow, and with the passing months Christensen found himself overtaken by a cloud of depression—something he had never experienced. “I just wanted to go down to the basement and make furniture, because then I [wouldn’t] have to talk to people,” he says. “The more I focused on myself, the unhappier I became.”

A break in the clouds came, he says, once “I screwed my head on straight.” It came when he recalled a statement of purpose he had sketched out years before, one founded in a focus on others, not himself. Light returned when he remembered that God would measure his life not by fluency, but by how he helped others.

Ordinary Clay

Clayton Christensen is a walking oxymoron. Voted in 2011 by the business community as the world’s most influential management thinker, he is as looked up to professionally as he is physically. And yet there’s nothing lofty, condescending, or intimidating about Christensen—whom everybody, from colleagues to young adults in the Cambridge wards, seems to know as just Clay. His professorial arched eyebrows are tempered by smile-crinkled eyes, and his voice, a sort of Kermit the Frog pitched an octave lower, is all warmth and aw-shucks friendliness that quickly levels him with audiences of hundreds or just one.

The apparent contradictions developed early as Christensen grew up in Salt Lake’s modest Rose Park neighborhood, full of ’50s-era red-brick starter homes and large families. He and his seven equally lanky siblings were children of the stake president, the produce manager downtown at ZCMI. Friend and neighbor Keith Stepan says Clayton’s father, Robert Christensen, was known for having “the biggest heart and softest hands” and for the stories of pioneer fortitude and courage he wove into his sermons. Clayton’s mother, Verda Mae Christensen—in whose name the Christensens established an endowment in support of BYU’s theatre program—had worked for a time at KSL and later served for 11 years on the Young Women General Board. She instilled in her children an ambition for learning. “The more you learn, the more talents that you develop, the more ways God can shape you to be useful in the kingdom,” she’d tell them.

Clayton, who had read the entire World Book Encyclopedia by age 12, seems to have taken the advice to heart. His youngest brother, Carlton, remembers teenaged Clayton always in the middle of a project—usually woodworking—and tied up in various adventures. “He was not a passive participant in life,” he says.

Along with his older brother, Elliott, and some neighborhood friends, Clayton launched the highly exclusive “Jordan River Yacht Club” with a fleet of homemade canvas-and-wood canoes. They’d spend summer days navigating the meandering ribbon of water—sometimes all the way out to the Great Salt Lake.

At West High School Clayton excelled in academics, served as student body president, and put his height to good use as a forward on the basketball team, the runner-up at the state championship.

“He was very modest about his achievements,” says Stepan, who observed Clayton as his priests quorum advisor and then as bishop, “and yet he was achieving so much.”

When it came time to go to college, Clayton received acceptance letters from Harvard, Yale, and BYU. Leaning toward Harvard, he nevertheless decided to make the decision a matter of prayer. The clear impression to choose BYU instead was, says Clayton, his first distinct answer to prayer. Offered a scholarship to play basketball, he opted instead to accept the David O. McKay Scholarship, a full-ride academic award.

Entering BYU he says he felt like a kid in a candy store. During his first year he took everything from oriental mythology to economic geography to black history, eventually settling on an economics major. In Econ 111, taught by Larry T. Wimmer (BS ’60), Clayton was classmates with Kim B. Clark (’74)—later dean of the Harvard Business School and now BYU–Idaho president—and an ambitious kid named Mitt Romney (BA ’71). Both would become Christensen’s longtime neighbors, ward members, and friends in Belmont, Mass. Wimmer, who taught tens of thousands of students over 46 years, says that class and those promising three stand out clearly in his memory, and he followed their ensuing careers with interest. “Instead of giving them grades,” he quips, “I should have bought stock.”

But it was a student in Clayton’s 7 a.m. Book of Mormon class that first semester who made the strongest impression on him. Christine Quinn (BA ’74) seemed to have the attention of all the boys, and Christensen, when he later returned from a mission to Korea, says he found himself about 50th in her line of suitors. When he eventually proposed, he says, “she turned me down flat.” To show Christine he was going places, he applied for Oxford’s Rhodes Scholarship, not thinking he’d actually get it. And if somehow he did win the scholarship, he planned to turn it down so he could stay and pursue Christine. “That would be like giving eight cows for my wife,” he says.

Not only did he win the scholarship, but he also won the girl and ended up attending Oxford after all—though this meant postponing marriage a year due to a rule that required first-year Oxford students to live in the dorms.

At Oxford’s Queen’s College, where he studied applied econometrics, Clayton worked to cram the three-year program into just two while playing on the school’s national championship basketball team and serving as young men president in his struggling ward. But he says it was his daily labors from 11 p.m. until midnight that had the most lasting impact on his life.

Realizing his testimony of the Book of Mormon was not adequate, he dedicated an hour each night to determining if what he’d been taught all his life was true or if truth was to be found elsewhere. Huddled by the heater in his room, he’d begin each session with verbal prayer, then read one page of the Book of Mormon, ponder its contents, and pray again, asking for a witness. He’d then turn the page and start the process again.

Weeks later, as he approached the end of 2 Nephi, he prayed and opened his scriptures to begin when “there came into that room a beautiful, warm, loving spirit that just surrounded me and permeated my soul and enveloped me in a feeling of love that I had not imagined that I could feel,” he recounted in a 2004 BYU–Idaho devotional. “I could see the glories of the eternity, and I could see what God had in store for me as one of His sons.”

“I use applied econometrics maybe once a year,” he continued, “but I use my knowledge that the Book of Mormon is the word of God many times every day of my life. In all of the education that I have pursued, that is the single most useful piece of knowledge that I ever gained.”

Read more about Christensen’s conversion story

After graduating from Oxford, Christensen finally did make it to Harvard, where he added an MBA to his résumé before entering the business-consulting field and working for a time as an entrepreneur in Boston.

All along this path, observers say, Christensen remained an ordinary guy—just Clay.

If famous for anything during those years, it was for getting into work early enough each morning so that he could leave in time to play catch with his children while there was still daylight. A relentless worker, he’d momentarily set his briefcase aside to cheer for his five kids at swim meets and basketball games (“Be a leader, Spence!”) while scrawling their stats on a sheet to review with them later.

When his children were little, each night he’d tell them two stories—one from the scriptures or Church history or his mission, the other an impromptu tale starring themselves. It “always included the Christensen kids coming up with some ingenious solution to thwart Darth Vader’s latest plot to make the kids of our town unhappy,” remembers son Spencer Q. Christensen (BS ’12). “The implicit message was . . . ‘You guys are smart and have the ingenuity to solve the hardest and most important problems.’”

And he mined their thoughts on the problems he faced in his consulting work and later in his academic research. “He did it with such sincerity we honestly believed our input was valuable to his client companies,” says Spencer, who at 7 gave his dad some advice on how to address the concerns of a client named Bill Gates.

For family home evening, Christensen once tackled a fatherly frustration—persistent clean-towel shortages—with a lesson in Toyota’s kaizen production principles. Daughter Kate calls the kids “dinner-table MBAs” and says it’s no wonder that most have found their way into the world of business strategy and innovation.

But proud as they were of their dad, neither they, nor he, expected what was just around the corner. “He doesn’t seem to expect any of the . . . success that’s come to him,” says son Michael. He was just a regular, old-slacks-and-golf-shirt sort of guy.measured approach to life—afflictions notwithstanding—Christensen strides forward in his research, teaching, and publishing, determined to make the most of his remaining time. “For whatever reason, [God has] said I have more work to do here.”

Read the full story at

—Peter B. Gardner (BA ’98, MA ’04), BYU Magazine, Spring 2013

Full Name: 
Clayton M. Christensen
Grad Year: 
BA 1975
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