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Clayton Christensen, renowned Harvard Business School professor, dies at 67

Clay Christensen met with research assistants in 2011.
Clay Christensen met with research assistants in 2011. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor whose ideas on “disruptive innovation’’ influenced boardrooms and workplaces around the world, has died at 67.

Michael B. Horn, who was a student of Mr. Christensen’s, coauthored a book with him, and cofounded the Clayton Christensen Institute, said he died Thursday surrounded by his family at a Massachusetts hospital from health complications stemming from the treatment of leukemia.

Mr. Christensen’s book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail,’’ became a crucial text as the digital revolution took hold. “Disruptive innovation’’ was applied to industries ranging from steel, to retail, semiconductors, and newspapers.

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The theory described the way startups or their products can overthrow a longstanding legacy company. Or, in his words, the process “by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors,” according to his website.

Essentially, industry leaders are blinded by huge profit margins from their higher-end products, and the new producers continue to improve the cheaper products and expand their market share, eventually upending the market.

“Clayton Christensen was one of the great minds of our time, and his impact will be felt for generations to come,’’ Governor Gary R. Herbert of Utah wrote on Twitter Friday.

In 2011, The Economist named his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” one of its six best business books ever.

A prime example of his theory, cited on page 3 of the book, was Maynard’s Digital Equipment Corporation. Its cheaper minicomputers were scoffed at by the makers of the massive computers operated for businesses by specialists in a data center. With Digital, companies could have their computers in house, closer to their business needs.

Yet, after Digital remade the market, it, too, was blindsided by the next phase in the computer revolution: the personal computer.

Jeff Howe, a fellow at Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University, described Mr. Christensen as a generalist who applied his disruption theory to management, technology, health, and media sectors.

“He helped take us out of the midcentury model that larger is always better and conglomeration is always better,” he said.

Howe thought Mr. Christensen’s legacy was complicated. While his disruption theory was hugely influential, it also led to him being associated with buzzwords and marketing hype, he said.

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In 2014, there was an academic clash between Mr. Christensen and Harvard history professor Jill Lepore, who wrote in The New Yorker that his disruptive innovation theory was full of holes and that it was useless as a tool to anticipate the future.

A 2015 article in the MIT Sloan Management Review also questioned the theory.

“The word disruption has many connotations in the English language,’’ Mr. Christensen told the Globe in 2015. “I just didn’t realize how that would create such a wide misapplication of the word ‘disruption’ into things that I never meant it to be applied to.”

He noted that “there are some pretty spectacular success stories from individuals who have correctly sought to apply my research,’’ including Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos and semiconductor pioneer Andy Grove.

Mr. Christensen, who lived in Belmont, joined the Harvard Business School faculty in 1992. Dean Nitin Nohria said in a statement that the school was heartbroken about his death.

“His loss will be felt deeply throughout our community,” said Nohria. “Clayton’s brilliance and kindness were equally evident to everyone he met, and his legacy will be long-lasting. Through his research and teaching, he fundamentally shaped the practice of business and influenced generations of students and scholars.”

Horn said Mr. Christensen took pride in having ideas that change the course of businesses, but he also took pleasure in having a personal impact in people’s lives. Horn recalled Mr. Christensen bringing over a giant vat of gazpacho after the birth of his twin daughters.

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Of the 6-foot-8 Mr. Christensen, Horn said, “He was obviously a giant of intellect, but he was also a giant of kindness.”

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, where Mr. Christensen was a board member and trustee emeritus, called him “maybe the best teacher I’ve ever known.” Mr. Christensen’s presence on the board gave the school national credibility “when no one knew us and we were just starting our journey from unknown to national entity.”

“He has suffered one terrible ailment after another with grace and dignity and endless good humor,” he said in a letter to the school board.

After Mr. Christensen suffered several significant health setbacks, including lymphoma and a stroke in 2010, he shifted from business guru to self-help evangelist for his next book. During his health problems and recovery, he told the Globe’s Steven Syre in 2012, he began to notice that many of his brilliant classmates at Harvard and Oxford universities may have been rich and successful, but they were leading profoundly unhappy lives.

Poor personal or professional choices, he said, were the root of their problems. Such observations led the professor to recast his last lecture of the year for departing Harvard students in his class, urging them to think about the things that would give their lives meaning. The lecture was so popular that students urged him to give it to the entire graduating business class.

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Many of its points — from finding meaning in life to resisting temptations — were rooted in his Mormon religion.

“Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. 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,’’ he wrote in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article entitled “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

David Skok, the founder and CEO of The Logic, a news site that focuses on the innovation economy, coauthored an academic report with Mr. Christensen while he was a Nieman fellow in 2012 that applied Mr. Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation to the media industry.

Reached on Friday, Skok, a former digital managing editor at the Globe, said Mr. Christensen had an authentic curiosity in everything that he did, cared deeply about students, and talked about leadership in ways you don’t hear “from business-MBA types.” Mr. Christensen, he said, taught people how to be good managers not only in terms of company growth and the bottom line, but also in treating employees as human beings.

“Generosity of spirit mattered more to him than what you learned from a case study,” said Skok.

Mr. Christensen’s brother, Carlton, said that while growing up in Salt Lake City, Mr. Christensen “was always pushing himself to do something he hadn’t done before.” He recalled Mr. Christensen building a pool table in junior high and said he had a love for basketball.

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Mr. Christensen’s Mormon faith was important to him; his brother said that he had served as a bishop “in one of the Cambridge student wards.”

And multiple people who knew Mr. Christensen recounted the story that when he was playing for a basketball team at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar, he refused to play in a game because it fell on a Sunday. He was the starting center, but the team still won.

“He always liked to joke, ‘I guess I wasn’t that important after all,’ ” said Horn, the cofounder of the Christensen Institute.

Mr. Christensen leaves his wife, Christine, five children, and six siblings, according to his brother.


Michael Bailey and Deirdre Fernandes of the Globe staff contributed. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny_McDonald.