PROVO — The first time Dave Ulrich made the Thinkers50, the world's most prestigious ranking of business management thought-leaders, the 2007 list placed him right between Al Gore and best-selling author Seth Godin.
He was one of three BYU alumni on the list that year, including the Harvard business professor who introduced the concept of "disruptive innovation," Clayton Christensen. Christensen finished first in the biennial rankings in 2011 and 2013. This year, for the first time, 10 percent of those on the Thinkers50 list are BYU graduates — Christensen at No. 2, Ulrich (27), Liz Wiseman (43), Hal Gregersen (46) and Whitney Johnson (49).
Like a smaller boxer who succeeds against bigger fighters, "BYU outpunches its weight," Ulrich said.
But how? Why does BYU make up an outsized portion of the Thinkers50?
The answers range from the mundane — how lists are compiled — to the intriguing — what the dean of BYU's business school calls the Clayton Christensen Effect. Christensen earned an economics degree at BYU and went on to write "The Innovator's Dilemma," which "deeply influenced" Apple's Steve Jobs. His ideas on innovative disruption have had such a broad impact that "disruption" is becoming a household term describing, for example, what is happening right now with cable TV cord-cutting. Gregersen and Johnson have worked directly with Christensen.
Ulrich said a better and perhaps more interesting answer includes the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on all five BYU alumni in the Thinkers50.
"Five LDS people on the list is amazing," he said. "I credit the LDS learning system. BYU, I think, through the missions served by so many of its students, gets that benefit. I don't think the world understands how great missions are for learning. Gospel and theology learning, of course, but also social learning, organizational learning, personal management learning. An 18-month or two-year mission is like five years working at one of the world's best consulting firms."
The idea of an outsized Mormon impact in business and business management has been explored before, most famously in a 2010 Financial Times article, which said LDS culture has given birth to "a professional elite." In 2012, Harvard Business Review published a piece titled, "How Mormons Have Shaped Modern Management."
Two Mormons, Christensen and the late author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen Covey, made the first Thinkers50 lists in 2001, ’03 and ’05. A human resources guru, Ulrich joined them on the list in 2007, ’09 and ’11.
HR Magazine named Ulrich the father of modern human resources in 2012 after calling him the most influential international thought leader for five consecutive years. Last year, speaking.com ranked him the No. 1 speaker in management and business.
Ulrich, who earned a master's in organizational behavior at BYU, is prolific. He is the author of more than 25 books. The latest may be the most ambitious, an attempt to create a measurement tool to help investors evaluate a company's leadership. Released this fall, "The Leadership Capital Index: Realizing the Market Value of Leadership" provides "rigorous" methods for readers to analyze leaders in 10 areas.
A Forbes magazine review welcomed the new idea: "In an era where the analysis of data is seen as central to business success, it makes no sense at all for those ultimately in charge of acting on this analysis to be employed without a similar form of thorough examination."
The creation of an index to gauge the leadership strength of an organization also put Ulrich on the short list of eight people considered for the 2015 Breakthrough Idea Award.
The BYU 5
After Covey died in 2012, Christensen and Ulrich were joined on the Thinkers50 2013 list by Wiseman, who developed the idea of leaders as multipliers and diminishers. Multipliers are people who double the brainpower inside an organization by attracting talent and making people around them smarter.
Wiseman earned a bachelor's degree in business management and a master's in organizational behavior at BYU and was the global leader of human resource development at Oracle. She has written three best-sellers in the past five years, including "Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter."
This year's new BYU additions to the Thinkers50 are attached to Christensen.
Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center. This year, the Forbes list of the world's most innovative companies was based on methodology Gregersen created with Jeff Dyer, a BYU business professor. Gregersen, Dyer and Christensen were co-authors in 2011 of "The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators."
Gregersen, who earned a master's in organizational behavior at BYU and is a past BYU faculty member, is working together now with Christensen studying "the power of questioning and how the most successful leaders are able to identify the right question — rather than the solution — to unlock a vexing challenge," according to the Thinkers50 site.
Johnson is the co-founder with Christensen and past president of the Rose Park Advisors' disruptive innovation investment fund. She took Christensen's theory of disruption and applied it at an individual level. This fall she published "Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work."
"She's revolutionizing career change," said Lee Perry, dean of BYU's Marriott School of Management. "She did a nice pivot with disruption and applied it to individuals."
She earned a music degree at BYU before moving into business. Last year, Fortune listed her as one of the 55 most influential women on Twitter. She has more than 51,400 followers.
Perry said having five BYU alums in the Thinkers50 rivals Harvard and Stanford. "It's pretty elite company," he said. "It's a nice validation when things like this happen. It's validation that you're doing the right thing and you're getting better. They're happy surprises for us."
Perry was careful not to ascribe too much credit to BYU.
"These are primarily individual achievements," he said. Like Ulrich, he credited what he called the LDS Church's focus on leadership and leadership development. Mormons don't have a paid clergy but their congregations are highly organized. Girls and boys begin to serve in leadership positions when they turn 12, and those opportunities continue to grow for women and men throughout their lives.
Christensen wrote about the concept in an essay a few years ago. He noted that a story about the organizational efficiency of the LDS Church in response to a flood missed the larger point — that organization is on display every week in every Mormon congregation.
"I think the experiences we have in church help us become more sensitive to leadership and organizational issues," Perry said. "I don't think it's just happenstance BYU had one of the earliest and strongest organizational behavior programs. We basically have a laboratory for leadership opportunities in the LDS Church that come with maybe even some additional challenges because it's a volunteer organization."
Perry taught Wiseman in a class at BYU, and he's proud of her. He said every Mormon will have had leaders who have been multipliers and others who have been diminishers.
"They've done this by themselves," he said of the five Latter-day Saints in the Thinkers50, "but I think their LDS and BYU backgrounds provided a nice little jumpstart."
Ulrich, who teaches at the University of Michigan's business school, agreed.
"I think the LDS culture creates an organizational DNA," he said. "BYU magnifies those early instincts. For me, BYU was life-changing. I put words on my experiences and discovered the principles I'd learned earlier were my principles."