Back to previous page


Post Most

If Harvard Business School were a religion, it could be Mormonism

By Clayton M. Christensen,

This piece is part of a joint On Faith - On Leadership series exploring the Mormon experiences that have helped shaped Mitt Romney’s leadership style, with pieces contributed by prominent Mormon writers and academics.

For the past year, as Mitt Romney has taken to the campaign trail, a number of news articles have explored why Mormons make good business leaders. An ethic of hard work, some say. A team mentality.

These may be true, yet there are other values that underpin Mormon leadership even more deeply — and they’re the same ones espoused by Harvard Business School.

I am fortunate to have been one of a number of Mormons who studied at the Harvard Business School (HBS) in the 1970s. The group includes Mitt Romney, of course. But it also includes Kim Clark, former dean of HBS. Now as president of Brigham Young University-Idaho, he is possibly the most innovative executive in higher education. Joel Peterson, chairman of JetBlue, is another — as is Neil Anderson, one of the Twelve Apostles who lead our church today.

This is a group that has achieved remarkable things professionally, even as their faith in Jesus Christ has grown stronger. Despite some research showing that as one’s education increases, religious participation tends to decrease — and despite the lack of discussions about faith within the business community at large — there is proof that we don’t need to be caught in a trade-off between professional and religious pursuits.

There is something about the LDS Church that is helping these people become even more influential executives in business and leaders in society. And in turn, the approach to management and leadership at HBS is strengthening their faith, rather than eroding it. As one who feels the influence of both institutions, I see strong points of intersection.

The first is the centrality of questions. The HBS case method doesn’t focus on the salient facts and answers in cases. Rather, it teaches students to ask, “What great question yielded that answer?”  There are academics who disparage our method as lacking rigor, but they are missing a fundamental truth: Rarely does asking the wrong question yield the right answer.

Now, if this HBS case method took a religious form, it would look a lot like Mormonism.

Our founding prophet organized the LDS church around answers to questions that he asked of God. (God rarely dispenses answers in the absence of questions.) The record of Jesus’ discussions with his followers and his detractors shows the importance of this format: Christ repeatedly demanded, in essence, “Wrong question. This is the question.”

The reason why much of Christianity went off the rails in the Middle Ages is that their leaders concluded that God had already given us all the answers. This, for them, obviated any ongoing need for questions, prophets or revelations. For Mormons, ongoing revelation from God is our lifeblood.

The second leadership commonality is the belief that we can learn something important from everyone. This is the essence of the HBS case method. By asking each other questions and debating the answers, students teach one another –the basic premise being that we learn things more deeply by teaching them. I feel sorry for students whose professors believe that faculty must lecture, while their students listen. If our mental model of learning is that we can only learn from people who have more education than we have, then the amount that we can learn is limited.

This too sits at the core of the LDS Church. We don’t pay professionals, in the form of clergy, to teach us. We teach one another, and we do it by the case method — though the scriptures label them as “parables” instead of cases. We discuss Christ’s “cases” at church, teaching one another how to follow Christ more completely. I remember, for example, when a man who worked the night shift at UPS masterfully orchestrated a case study in our church about forgiveness — around the Bible’s story about the Prodigal Son.

A reason why so many discussions among the erudite disparage religion, while some religious people are wary of answers from science, is that we have the categories wrong.  Many assume that science and academics belong in one category of knowledge, while religion comprises another category, primarily of belief. Further, religions often are sub-segmented into Catholics vs. Protestants, and Traditional vs. Evangelical Christians. Some in the latter group even categorize deeply Christian Mormons as “non-Christians.” These categorizations generate far more heat than light.

A much more productive framing is that there is the pursuit of truth on the one hand, and the propagation of error on the other. If there are conflicting assertions in science and in religion, then one or the other is wrong — or both are wrong, or both are incomplete.

But truth cannot be inconsistent with truth. As long as we are seeking truth, we are on solid ground. The pursuit of truth has no intellectual or spiritual prejudice.

This is the most important reason why we find that how we learned at HBS, and how we learn in our church about the kinds of leaders that God wants us to become, are mutually reinforcing. And, incidentally, you don’t need to be admitted to either in order to learn this lesson.

Christensen is the Kim B. Clark professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School and author of, most recently, How Will You Measure Your Life?

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter :

On Leadership: @post_lead | Editor: @lily_cunningham

© The Washington Post Company