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Leadership & Organisations

It's time to change our questions

Hal Gregersen |

Transformational leaders ask innovative questions — lots of them. In anticipation of President Obama’s inauguration speech, INSEAD professor Hal Gregersen wondered if the new president would do the same, but found that his questions fell a bit short compared to innovative leaders in other times and places.

For example, research on the entrepreneurial founders at 25 of the most innovative companies in the world — places like Apple, eBay, and Amazon — reveals that they rely heavily on countless, catalytic questions to create revolutionary new ways of doing business.  Such questions help break the status quo and prompt powerful, personal action.

Many great US presidents have done the same.  Look at Lincoln.  In Lincoln’s First Inaugural, almost one of every five statements was a question — a rate matched by no other presidential inaugural in US history.  These were not garden-variety queries, but pointed and probing ones delivered in a moment of crisis, with a number of states already seceded and the threat of civil war looming. His questions forced hard thinking about where his nation was headed and why, versus where it could be headed and what it would take to get there. Here’s a sampling:

  • “Before entering upon so grave a matter as the destruction of our national fabric, with all its benefits, its memories, and its hopes, would it not be wise to ascertain precisely why we do it?”
  • “Will you hazard so desperate a step, while there is any possibility that any portion of the ills you fly from have no real existence?”
  • “Will you, while the certain ills you fly to are greater than all the real ones you fly from, will you risk the commission of so fearful a mistake?”
  • “Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people?  Is there any better or equal hope in the world?
  • “Can aliens make treaties easier than friends make laws?”

Of course, Lincoln just didn't ask questions. He also offered some preliminary answers. With respect to the last question noted, he asserts: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Clearly, today’s nation and the world is also entitled to 'answers' from its leaders, especially during such uncertain times as we now face.  And clearly, President Obama delivered many excellent preliminary answers during his inauguration, addressing issues ranging from international economic woes to greater world peace to global warming and beyond.

He also pleaded that “the time has come to put away childish things … (to) pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America (and the world for that matter). For everywhere we look there is work to be done.”

He argued passionately for a rekindling of core values such as faith, determination, kindness, selflessness, courage, honesty, hard work, fair play, tolerance, curiosity, loyalty, and responsibility to guide and lift us through the challenges ahead. But perhaps his nation and the world might have been even better served by also presenting provocative questions to trigger powerful personal reflection and perhaps touching more deeply the “better angels of our nature” necessary to sustain the “hope” and “bonds of affection” as we move forward (and as Lincoln believed was key to a country’s survival).

So as I reflected on Lincoln’s powerful questions before President Obama’s inauguration, I could not help but wonder:  “What world-changing questions might Obama propose during the inauguration?  What great questions will he ask to help his nation and perhaps the world prepare for the next four years? Or even the next forty years?”

So how did President Obama do?  He delivered one question out of 111 statements, declaring: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”  Given the current crises facing his nation as well as the world, asking us all to consider what government can and must do differently is good. But perhaps he could have probed even more directly and personally, as President Kennedy did in 1961 when he declared with crystal clarity: “Ask not what our country can do for us, but what can we do for our country” and then he questioned the “fellow citizens of the world” to “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man (and woman).  And finally he reflected “whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us (Americans) the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.”

These are the questions that started to change the world in 1961. And if taken seriously, such questions may well continue to change the world in 2009. For too long, now, it seems too many of us, in too many different areas of life, in too many parts of the world have been predominantly asking “how can we get something for nothing”?

Indeed, if it really is a time for change, and I believe that it is, then it may just be time to start changing our questions.  So as the leader of one of the most powerful nations on the earth, President Obama, we look forward to hearing and reflecting on your future questions to help us transform hoped for changes into concrete reality during the next four years.


Hal Gregersen is the co-author (with Jeff Dyer at BYU/Wharton and Clayton Christensen at Harvard) of a forthcoming Harvard Business Review article on the world’s most innovative business leaders and co-author of 'It Starts With One: Changing Individuals Changes Organisations' (Wharton, 2008).