Clayton Christensen a voice of faith and values in the business world

Published: Monday, Nov. 29 2010 9:00 a.m. MST

Clayton M. Christensen is fond of asking unusual questions. So here is one for him: How can an internationally-renowned business guru from Harvard Business School and a faithful member of the LDS Church who doesn't like country music be a fan of Toby Keith's song "I Love This Bar," a honky-tonk ode to "chain smokers, boozers ... blue collar boys and rednecks"?

As a non-alcohol-drinking Mormon (he served as an area Seventy), Christensen probably isn't enamored with the bar and the drinks. So what is it? Does the song embody his "disruptive innovation" business theories that make the nation's top CEOs sit at his feet at conferences and in private consultations? Does it provide a framework for the type of counterintuitive thinking that made the Deseret News ask him to be on its editorial board? Does it describe the path from growing up in a modest home in Rose Park to respect in the halls of Harvard Business School and on bestseller author lists? Notwithstanding recent health challenges that would have knocked most people out of the game, he still moves forward at a breakneck pace, applying his theories in ways that could solve problems from reforming health care and education to — in his forthcoming book — looking at the future of universities.

A life of privilege

"Big portions of my life were spent in obscurity and poverty. Other portions have been prominent and had more money," Christensen said recently while visiting Salt Lake City. "And I greatly prefer poverty and obscurity. It's just a lot easier to raise your children."

That "poverty and obscurity" is a bit of an exaggeration if you apply it to his childhood. Christensen was born in Salt Lake City, the second of eight children. The modest home on 1500 West near Riverside Park in Rose Park that Robert and Verda Mae Christensen provided for their eight children was rich in many ways. Christensen's father worked at ZCMI in the grocery and foods division and often had his children helping out with stocking shelves and the like. His mother was a high school teacher and was a video and television writer and producer. She inspired him to get the best education possible.

"I remember her teaching me that 'the more you learn Clayton, the more talents you develop, the more ways God can shape you to be useful in building his kingdom,'" Clayton said at a speech at BYU-Idaho in 2004 — a month before she died.

Both his parents set an example of service and of accepting volunteer work in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His dad was a stake president and his mother spent 11 years as a member of the YWMIA board which oversaw activities and programs for young women in the LDS Church.

"My parents were willing for us to reach out on our own and be a little more independent and try to teach us to think for ourselves and do for ourselves," said his brother Carlton, who works as a community development representative at Zions Bank and is a member of the Salt Lake City Council.

Christensen's parents trusted him to do things on his own — such as building his own pool table or forming his own yacht club when he was just a boy. The Jordan River Yacht Club's charter members were Christensen and his older brother Elliott along with friends Scott and Lloyd Steenblik when they were about 13 or 14 years old.

One day in Aug. 1964, Christensen's dad dropped the boys off with their homemade canoes and kayaks at Utah Lake. Their plan was to follow the Jordan River back to their homes in Rose Park on Salt Lake City's west side. Sometimes they had to carry their boats, but after three days they reached their goal. Making goals and adapting along the way became a way of life for Christensen.

When Christensen was a kid, he even read the World Book Encyclopedia from A to Z.

"Just because he thought it would be an interesting thing to do," his brother Carlton said. "And he always set goals like that — odd goals that no other person would do."

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