Rest in peace, Clayton Christensen and Leila Janah

 

Two important business figures passed away last week from Cancer. Both deserve to be remembered for what they symbolized as much as for what they did.

Clayton Christensen died of leukemia on Thursday, January 23, at the age of 67, after more than a decade of health struggles including a heart attack and a stroke. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, Rhodes scholar and himself a Harvard Business School graduate, was the author of the seminal 1997 work, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail and a body of work that was often cited as the catalyst behind famous growth stories such as Intel’s rebirth and Netflix’s transition to streaming among many other business successes. 

As an ambitious professor, Christensen spoke to, and consulted businesses around the world, published his research frequently, and is sometimes called the man who helped define the modern role of Silicon Valley and other tech hubs (he was named one of the world’s most influential management thinkers 4 years in a row among many other accolades). But it was his impact on thousands of students who would go on to become business managers themselves that will ripple on for generations and it was his lectures that gave him the time and space to think about the meaning of life through the eyes of business.

Leila Janah died on the same day as Professor Christensen, of Sarcoma. Ms. Janah, just 37, was the founder of 4 social impact businesses that garnered a lot of media attention for good reason. Her businesses were purpose-driven and included an artificial intelligence business with roots in Africa as well as a line of skin care products manufactured by women in third-world countries. They were the best of social entrepreneurship: growth-oriented and vested with value and meaning. 

Beginning with his heart attack in 2010, Christensen made a widely chronicled pivot from business thinker to life thinker, opining about the value and meaning of our time here on earth, often using his business education to describe non-business matters and often for the benefit of his students. His Harvard Business Review article, How Will You Measure Your Life, would become a book with the same title. 

Messages Matter But So Do Messengers, Part I

Christensen was a learned global thinker facing the end of his life. We want to hear from people like him who look back and share with us what they see in the rear view mirror. In his last teaching years, Christensen wondered what it must be like to be an incoming first year business school student at Harvard, as he was decades earlier. Driven, ambitious, nervous, thinking about how to achieve success. Nevertheless, Christensen asked his students to look at things from a different point of view, “My class at HBS is structured to help my students understand what good management theory is and how it is built….On the last day of class, I ask my students to turn those theoretical lenses on themselves, to find cogent answers to three questions. First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?”

copyright World Economic Forum/swiss-image.ch, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

In the HBR article, he uses his own life for the case study, illustrating, often in business terms, how he tried to make the best strategic decisions in his life and why money is the least effective way to measure value in a well-lived life. I’m grateful for his perspective. It takes a lifetime and then a death sentence to have both clarity and credibility on that subject. He didn’t have to share what he saw but he was, after all, a teacher so it’s exactly what we expect from 60-something year old professors.

Today, I’m thinking about what happens next for me and anyone else who’s familiar with Christensen’s later work on the topic of meaningfulness. Now that we know what one wise person believes is important in life, how will I incorporate that into my own practice? Most of us, including his students at Harvard Business School, have bills to pay, groceries to buy and laundry to do. While the business professor writes that “If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification,’ how will I remember that “no other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team” and that the professor wanted “students to leave my classroom knowing that.”

 

Messages Matter But So Do Messengers, Part II

photograph by Christopher Michel, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Leila Janah didn’t go to Harvard Business School but she did go to Harvard as an undergraduate, all the more of an achievement when you know that she came from modest beginnings as well as an immigrant family. It’s not hard to imagine her sitting in Professor Christensen’s classroom and listening to these same lectures, wondering about the same questions as me. 

Even though her work was unfinished, she’s exactly the kind of person whose accomplishments and drive we admire. She was a young woman building an empire that was set to change the world for many others. We weren’t ready to hear her share her wisdom; instead, from her, we wanted to hear about her drive, her sense of purpose, her stories of climbing to ever greater heights. That’s what we want from 30-something visionaries. Especially those who started near the bottom. 

If Professor Christensen is one of our best thinkers, willing to share life lessons with the rest of us, Ms. Janah is one of our best do-ers. dedicating her life to using capitalism to improve the lives of others. The terminally ill Professor Christensen asked his students to think about the meaning of value through his eyes. The younger Ms. Janah, a student from that same school, showed us how it’s done.

Last week we lost two great capitalists. If you believe that capitalism is partly responsible for lifting the world out of poverty, as I do, then stop a moment next week to think about Janah and Christensen. Maybe you aren’t prepared to dedicate your life to using capitalism to help others, as Ms. Janah was. At least give some thought to the value system Professor Christensen shared with us in his last years about how business, and life, are driven by values first