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THE MAGIC OF CLAY

Clayton Christensen taught me patience, showed me love, then gave me confidence and hope

Clayton Christensen
Courtesy Clayton Christensen
Disruptor.
Published

To say Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who passed away on Jan. 23, changed the trajectory of my life would be a severe understatement. In fact, not only did he change the trajectory of my life, but he also did it with such care and compassion that it would be understandable that some people might mistake me for his only protege.

The magic of Clay, however, a man with the rare mixture of unfettered brilliance and unwarranted kindness, is that what he did for me he did for countless others. 

As I think back on his life, I thought it’d be fitting to reflect on four things Clay gave me. Through the outpouring of love and support since his death, it’s safe to assume that Clay directly impacted the lives of thousands of people, and indirectly touched millions of others.

Confidence

During my MBA studies, I remember the first time I walked into his office. I was interviewing for a fellowship at the Forum for Growth and Innovation, his research institute at Harvard Business School. I was incredibly nervous, but I was also determined to make a case for why we should take the theories we learned in his course, Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise, to Africa and other emerging regions in the world.

When he asked: “Efosa, would you like to come and write this book with me?” I didn’t know how to respond.

Perhaps he saw my nervousness and wanted to ease my fears. Or perhaps he already knew I would be his research fellow because he had prayed about it. Perhaps it was both. Either way, I’ll never forget the first thing he said after we greeted each other: “Efosa, would you like to come and write this book with me?” I didn’t quite know how to respond. Here was this giant of management and innovation theory asking me to join his team and write a book, before “interviewing” me. He was offering me the chance of a lifetime but conveyed it with such humility that it seemed as though I was doing him the favor. He didn’t know if I could write or even do research. But he knew something else, something more important. He knew that if he gave me the confidence to believe that I could co-author a book with him, I could. And I did.

Patience

So we wrote The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty with Karen Dillon. About a year ago, around the time the book was published, as I reflected on the journey of writing it, I came across some of my early drafts. It was only then that I realized how much Clay had taught me, and more importantly, how much patience he had while I learned.

Early drafts of the book weren’t very good, but Clay was so patient with me that I didn’t realize how much I still had to learn about writing. An idea, no matter how powerful, can only truly be shared when you can explain it clearly to others. Through this process, he taught me how to think, write, and speak in a compelling way.

For example, I remember struggling a lot with the chapter on corruption, which has become the favorite chapter of many who have read the book. I went to him for some counsel and he said, “Efosa, anytime I’m struggling with something, it usually means I’m getting the categories wrong.” That simple statement changed how I thought about corruption. Through it all, he was patient with me, and showed no signs of frustration, as I learned to write.

Hope

I left Nigeria almost 20 years ago, with no intention of ever returning. I despaired Nigeria wouldn’t find a way to develop in my lifetime. There was just too much to overcome: corruption, bad institutions, no infrastructure, and so on. But as I worked with Clay, I found the hope I had lost. He helped me see the world through a different set of lenses. 

The last paragraph in The Prosperity Paradox captures this well:

We believe in the power of innovation. And, more specifically, we believe that investing in market-creating innovations, even when the circumstances seem challenging, provides one of the best chances for us to create prosperity in many of today’s poor countries. This is the solution to the Prosperity Paradox, and it can get us to the end of development in our lifetime. The stakes are too high for us not to get this right.

Clay’s way of thinking and seeing the world has given me so much hope that I can’t help but to dedicate my life to spreading his message far and wide. 

Love

When you worked with Clay, you came to realize that he genuinely loved you. His capacity to love was enormous. From the way he asked, “How are you doing?” to the way he listened when you shared details of your life you might not typically share with a professor or collaborator, his love was palpable. The day after our book came out, he looked at me and said, “Efosa, what’s next for you? How can I help you achieve what you’d like to do next?”

Just like the first words he spoke to me when I entered his office for my “interview,” these words surprised me. But they shouldn’t have. It was classic Clay. Through the years, Clay had been unequivocal about his love for me, and for those who worked with him. 

To simply call Clay a professor to the many of us who experienced him would be to miss the point of who he was and what he meant to us. He was so much more. He asked us to be better, not out of judgement, but out of love. And then he helped us become better by giving us confidence. By being patient with us. By helping us see the world through a different lens, which gave us hope. And by simply loving us.

We lost a great man on Jan. 23, 2020. But as my friend, Michael Horn (another Clay protege) wrote, “Clay’s legacy isn’t just in what he produced, but in the people he affected.” Clay was pure magic, and his legacy will live on in all of us fortunate enough to have experienced him through his work and his life.

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