Getting to Know Jesper Sørensen

Meet the organizational sociologist, avid indoor rower, New England Patriots fan, mystery lover, and K-drama fan (at least while he’s rowing his 10,000 daily meters).

April 05, 2023

Jesper Sørensen

You can learn a lot about a person in just a few minutes with a lightning round of questions.

  • Favorite food: Curried herring on dark rye

  • Music: 70s rock from Dylan to Abba

  • Socialism or capitalism: Danish capitalism

  • Book genre: Mysteries

  • Word of the year: ChatGPT

The Danish born, American raised, sociologist and strategist rarely hesitated with his answers, except on the last question: Wine or beer? “Why do I have to choose?” he protested.

The Herring Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree

Jesper Sørensen was born in Denmark to sociologists. So it’s no surprise he became one. And married one, too (they met on his first day of grad school). His family moved to the states, just shy of his one-year birthday, so his father could pursue a PhD. He grew up near the campus of University of Wisconsin, Madison, but Denmark is still in his heart, stomach, and politics.

All the World’s a Stage. Including the Classroom.

Getting your PhD rarely teaches you how to teach. So, Jesper worked really hard to master it. His most helpful mentor was an MBA-trained actor and theater director who taught him that every class is like putting on a play.

Strategy is basically telling a story about how you will succeed.
Jesper Sørensen

“She said you have to think about teaching as if you’re a director and actor. What is your entrance going to be? Which different characters are you going to play?” That metaphor stuck and formed the basis of his energetic teaching style. “Variety is essential. And it’s about using white space and pauses and motion. I move around a lot when I teach. I tell a lot of jokes. I call on people and get them involved. But then I can pivot to being serious. I think that kind of contrast really works.” Jesper finds the immediate gratification of teaching a real contrast to the long-term process of research. “You know right away when you get something right in the classroom.”

Instilling Strategic Confidence

Jesper wants to help leaders understand that they have more power and agency when it comes to strategy than they realize. That’s due in part, he believes, to all the complicated frameworks and jargon out there. So, he strives to simplify it. “Organizations have to do two things,” he explains. “They have to create economic value. And they have to capture some of that economic value for themselves. My job is to help people think through what those two things mean and how each one plays out in their organizations, and then give them the language and confidence to tell their story.”

Learning by Doing

Jesper learned a lot about real-world leadership when he served as interim Executive Director of Stanford Seed, a GSB-led initiative that’s working to end the cycle of global poverty. “Even though I had taught strategic leadership for 20 years at the time, it was a lot harder in practice. Now when I’m teaching executives, I have a much greater appreciation for the ambiguities that those leaders face. As a professor, it’s often very easy to have a clear, theoretical kind of view on things, but the reality is rarely as clear-cut.”

Man of Mystery

As an avid mystery reader, Jesper also finds strategic parallels in the literary genre he loves, comparing it to strategy identification — although he admits that the comparison is a bit nerdy. “With strategy, I’m trying to understand why an organization is succeeding or failing, and it’s a bit like a detective story. You have imperfect information and you’re trying to fit the pieces together.”


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