In Memoriam for Clayton Christensen

  • Clayton Christensen (WHF 1982-83): 1953-2020

    The White House Fellows Foundation & Association regrets the passing of Clayton Christensen. Clayton was a member of the WHF Class of 1982-83. Over the past week obituaries for Clayton have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers both in the U.S. and abroad. Such was his impact. Below is a sampling of the tributes to Clayton. Also included below are remembrances from several of his Classmates, other White House Fellows, and friends.

    “Our hearts are heavy as we mourn the passing of Clayton Christensen,” said a statement released by his family, including his wife, Christine Christensen. “After a year of valiantly fighting leukemia, Clayton passed away in Boston on January 23, 2020 surrounded by his family. It has been our great privilege to call him our husband, father and friend.” The statement went on to say: “Our family is grateful for the outpouring of love and support we have received over the past few days. We are humbled by how many lives he has touched. Clayton felt his life would be measured by the individuals he helped and the ways in which he could serve those around him.”

    “We are grieving,” the family added, “but are also celebrating the legacy of a man who has made an incredible and indelible impact on the worlds of business, of health care, of education, of economic development and beyond. He changed the way people think. He helped them grow. He encouraged them to focus on what is most important: defining and pursuing a meaningful, principled life.”

    Clayton M. Christensen, Harvard Business School’s Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration, was an acclaimed author and teacher, and the world’s foremost authority on disruptive innovation. Christensen joined the HBS faculty in 1992. He earned a B.A. with highest honors in economics from Brigham Young University (1975); an M.Phil. in applied econometrics from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar (1977); and an MBA with High Distinction (1979) and a DBA (1992) from Harvard Business School. He was granted tenure at the School in 1998 and named to a chaired professorship in 2001.

    “Clayton Christensen was one of the world’s greatest scholars on innovation and a remarkable person who had a profound influence on his students and colleagues,” said Dean Nitin Nohria. “His research and writings transformed the way aspiring MBAs, industries, and companies look at management. He was a beloved professor and role model whose brilliant teaching and wisdom inspired generations of students and young academics. Most importantly, Clayton had a passion for helping others be their best selves that permeated every aspect of his life. His loss will be felt deeply by many in our community and his legacy will be long-lasting.”

    Christensen was born in Salt Lake City and graduated from Brigham Young University after serving two years as a missionary in Korea. After marrying his wife, Christine, he attended Harvard Business School graduating with an MBA in 1979. He joined Boston Consulting Group and later founded a company with several MIT professors.

    A distinguished scholar, Christensen was one of the most influential business theorists of the last 50 years, according to Forbes, and was twice ranked at the top of the Thinkers 50 list among many other awards and accolades. His research and ideas focus on identifying and managing factors that shape the way firms introduce advanced technologies to existing and prospective markets, and the process by which innovation transforms-or displaces-companies or entire industries. He first introduced the notion of “disruptive innovation” in his seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. It became a New York Times bestseller and received the Global Business Book Award for the best business book published in 1997. More than two decades later, business leaders from around the world continue to credit Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation for their ability to innovate, grow, and compete in today’s global economy.

    “The Economist” magazine called his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma “one of the six most important business books ever written.”

    “What many people don’t realize is that being an academic was really my father’s third career;” said Matt Christensen, one of Christensen’s five children. “After being a strategy consultant and then a startup CEO, my dad went back to school and got his doctorate, finishing that at about the same time that I finished high school. As a result, seeing his research come together over the last quarter century is a relatively recent memory for me. And yet, while his professional life has gone through fascinating iterations and developments, what hasn’t changed is that he has constantly been the best father and husband anybody could hope to have.”

    Christensen was committed to both community and church. In addition to serving as a White House Fellow and a Rhodes Scholar, he was an elected member of the Belmont Town Council for eight years, and served the Boy Scouts of America for 25 years as a scoutmaster, cub master, den leader, and troop and pack committee chairman. He also served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Republic of Korea from 1971 to 1973, spoke fluent Korean, and was a leader in his church.

    Clayton Christensen is survived by his wife, Christine, and their children, Matthew, Michael, Spencer, Ann and Catherine Christensen; and nine grandchildren.


    Remembrance from Diane Vines (Class of 1982-83): Clayton was a quiet, strong influence on our Fellows class. He had the most intelligent and penetrating questions for those we met with in the U.S. and abroad. He was kind and caring for all of us. For me, he insisted on helping carrying my bags on our ASEAN trip even though we female Fellows were told we had to manage for ourselves. I was so proud of his wonderful accomplishments and his good life.

    Another memory of Clayton is when we were on our international trip in Bangkok at an important dinner. The final special treat was presented to us in front of the important guests. It was a pig’s snout with the teeth. It was considered an honor and we knew one of us would have to volunteer to eat it in front of the dignitaries. To our great relief, Clayton volunteered and saved the rest of us.

    Remembrance from Douglas W Kmiec (Class of 1982-83): Clayton Christensen was larger than life itself. His smile was ever present, his abundant intelligence could work through the most difficult of problems, and his faith guided him to be a champion of families. Clay’s-personal witness helped even the hardest worker to live a more balanced and charitable life.

    I can only speak for myself, but I always thought I was the last fellow picked; my classmates, my fellow fellows were all so diverse and bright and self-assured. Wherever I was in the class lineup, I pretty much knew that Clay Christensen was number one in our class. It’s hard not to notice someone who is 6 feet 9″ Going on infinity. If BFG had not already been taken, Clay certainly would have been out big friendly giant.

    Of course, Clay’s influence in matters of faith or business management or technology was truly giant. He and I both wrote books, but that is where the comparison stops. Clay’s rocketed to the top of bestseller lists being declared by the most successful CEOs as a true classic. Mine – well let’s just say it was the kind of book that lingers for a dollar or less at the clearance table before making it into a nice warm fire for winter. Clay would’ve chuckled at that comparison, but he also would’ve coupled his laughter with an inspirational word or two. He would deny my self- deprecation. “No Doug,” he would say, “you’re just ahead of your time, look at it from a different angle and it may very well take off.”

    It turns out that Kind of personal encouragement or kindness became a part of Clay’s most important insight: disruptive innovation. Clay was a precise man and when he used terminology it became a word of art and he did his best to politely insist that others use it properly. His insight was to not overlook products or technologies that seem common place or a mere component element of a new or higher technology or protocol. Clay would say if you look at that subordinate part; that sometimes less interesting part long enough you might well find yourself reverse engineering the reverse engineering and finding a new frequently overlooked path of greater achievement and success.

    Clay would talk that way. I had to take his word for most of it. Clay’s well trained mind had been tested and prodded at BYU and Harvard where he returned to teach. The fellowship class knew him best in his early years at the Boston Consulting Group.

    Over the years, Clay and I would lose track of each other. The Christmas card and the family letter would sort of bring us up-to-date periodically. We would run across each other In airports with conversations too short to take in all of the busy aspects of Clay’s Life in the church, his life at home and his spectacular influence on business insight and innovation.

    For most White House fellows the fellowship is all value added. Fellowship experience yields more potential than would otherwise be the case. It was different for Clay. He brought value to the fellowship itself. For most of us in the class of 1983-83 The White House fellowship was a very pleasant disruption; one that we knew then would not repeat. Thankfully, often times, our class experience would lead to greater opportunities. The fellowship was invaluable to us. Clay was invaluable to the fellowship. We all knew it, even as the ever modest Clay would look down and smile when in earshot of such honest flattery.

    I hope he’s looking down and smiling now on each of us whose lives were made more full and more innovative because he touched them with one or more of his many gifts. I miss our BFG. All the consulting companies and high-flyers emerging from Harvard business will miss him too.

    Remembrance from Bill Roper (Class of 1984-85): Of the many great things that I received because of being a White House Fellow, right at the top of the list was getting to know Clay Christensen. His outstanding character, his amazing intellect, and his remarkable decency were a wonderful gift to our class, and surely to me personally. I am much the better person because of Clay. I will miss him greatly.

    Remembrance from Jacob Donnelly (Class of 2014-15): Clay loved the White House Fellows program, and was one of my inspirations for applying. As a teacher and mentor, he would often answer questions through analogous stories. Yet, in doing so he’d craft a lens that would illuminate, with uncanny precision, a larger insight. I’ll never forget sitting in his office talking about his experience in the Fellowship and how his time in Washington was a gift that gave back to him many times throughout his career. He believed it could do the same for me, and I’m forever grateful he helped open the door to our wonderful community. Clay was passionate about solving big and important challenges for our country and last week we lost a giant – in physical stature, in scholarship, and most importantly in character and kindness. He will be missed.

    Remembrance from Jeri Eckhart Queenan (Class of 1985-86): Over the course of 40 years, Clayton showed me how to live a meaningful life marked by humility, quiet confidence, family and faith.

    I met Clayton at the Boston Consulting Group in 1981, where he had returned from the White House Fellowship and was my first manager. In this extraordinary firm sometimes known for its culture of arrogance, Clayton was uniquely humble. In an office where workaholics like me routinely worked until 9PM, Clayton would stand up at 5PM – even with senior partners – and quietly excuse himself to be with his family. In an increasingly secular society where many are uneasy talking about faith, Clayton was clear in his commitment to God and inspired me to return to my own faith.

    While we were both WHFs, our most personal connection was around Type I diabetes. Clayton was diagnosed with Type I as a young adult; at BCG we interviewed him as a subject matter expert. Years later my 3 year old daughter was diagnosed with Type I and Clayton was the first friend I called. His deep empathy and compassion, coupled with his quiet assurance that she could live a normal life, put me back on my feet. His words became our mantra, “You can do anything that others can do, you just have to prepare.”

    Thank you, Clayton. I am grateful for your impact on my life.

    Remembrance from Jack LeCuyer (Class of 1977-78): Clay Christensen, WHF 1982-83, was at once a gentle giant at 6 foot 8 inches and a man for all seasons. His intellect and questioning of “what makes things work and what might challenge our answers to that?” are well-known. His writings and books on innovation serve as revealed truth to the giants of industry, the military leaders of our nation, and the innovators of the Silicon Valley. But beyond this fame, Clay was above all a man of faith who overcame Type 1 diabetes (diagnosed during his WHF year), a heart attack, a stroke that left him without the ability to speak, cancer, and through sheer determination, regained his ability to speak and communicate his powerful ideas — all while adhering to his Mormon faith and focusing on his family and others less fortunate than they. Clay’s own sense of his worth and mission on earth would make John Gardner proud. Clay did not stand idly by on the sidelines, but rather, leaped into the fray. As Clay put it:

    “I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring out lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people. When I have my interview with God, our conversation will focus on the individuals whose self-esteem I was able to strengthen, whose faith I was able to reinforce, and whose discomfort I was able to assuage – a doer of good, regardless of what assignment I had. These are the metrics that matter in measuring my life.”

    Rest in peace, gentle soul.

    Remembrance from Scott Gration (Class of 1982-83): I was deeply saddened to learn of Clayton Christensen’s passing recently.  Yes, Clayton was tall, but I was most impressed by his big heart, deep faith, caring attitude, and love for his family.

    One early memory of Clayton comes from our WHF overseas trip.   One morning in Bangkok, we were ready to depart for a meeting with a high-level government official when we learned that one of our class had overslept.  I recommended that we depart on time and let our tardy class member join us later.  Clayton was adamant; he stated firmly that it was better for all of us to be late rather than to leave one of our class behind.  Later I told Clayton that his intervention was correct and that I sincerely appreciated his caring spirit.

    We all share vivid memories of Clayton.  He was a very special man with a big smile for everyone and he will continue to live through our cherished and warm remembrances of times being together—having meals together, laughing together, and being influenced by his intellect and caring heart.  Our prayers will continue to be with Christine and his family.

    Clayton, we will miss you…we will always remember you.


    We extend our deepest condolences to Clayton’s family, and to his White House Fellow classmates.

    posted: February 13, 2020
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