Death of a mentor

Can someone you’ve never met or spoken with be your mentor?

I say yes, and mine was laid to rest on Saturday.

Clayton Christensen was the most influential business thinker on Earth, according to The New Yorker. He’s the guy who coined the now ubiquitous term “disruptive innovation.” But somehow he became known more for how he treated people than his professional success.

His book about it was named by The Economist as one of the six most important business books ever written. The legendary CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, credited him for insights that made Intel the powerhouse that it is. Christensen was one of the most popular professors at the Harvard Business School, and powered through cancer and a stroke.

Read the dozen glowing profiles of him and you’ll see typically cynical New Yorker and Fortune writers fawning about how kind and humble he was.

I heard him speak once and was captivated by his ability to explain profound concepts simply. And to feel accessible to all 500 people in the room, despite his fame, intellect, and 6’8” frame.

When I learned more about him, nuggets like this stood out to me: He made a commitment early in his career that he wouldn’t bring work home with him. While he and his wife raised five children, he never worked in the evenings or on the weekends. Sometimes that meant arriving at the office at 3 a.m., but when he was at home, his kids knew he was home.

I’ve fallen way short of that standard, but knowing that someone world-class like him could pull that off has made a big difference in how I prioritize my time.

His biggest impact on the world grew out of a special lecture he’d give his students at Harvard. In the final class of the semester, he shared his thoughts on priorities, relationships, and ethics under the title, “How will you measure your life?”

Those thoughts became so popular that Harvard Business Review requested he write an article about it. It went viral. An excerpt:

“Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved. Worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.”`

You should read it.

I’ve got a bunch more stories about how Clayton Christensen inspired me from a distance. But I only just learned my favorite. As a PR person who probably helps arrange photo ops, you’ll love this, too.

At his funeral, his daughter told the behind-the-scenes story of his first photo shoot for a Forbes cover. The feature was about how he was advising Andy Grove on Intel’s success, so the shot was the two of them together. But Christensen wanted his wife to also be in the picture because he believed that his contributions weren’t possible without her support.

The photographer unsurprisingly declined the request, instead posing the two men with Christensen’s right hand resting on Grove’s shoulder.

So Christensen switched his wedding ring from his left hand to his right, so it would be in the shot. He told his daughter that he did it so his wife “would know she was part of the picture, too.”

How will you measure your life?

This article was originally published on February 6, 2020

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