---- by Hal Gregersen, INSEAD Affiliate Professor of Leadership ----
Innovative leaders ask innovative questions lots of them. Our research on the entrepreneurial founders at 25 of the most innovative companies in the world (places like Apple, eBay, Amazon, and Skype) revealed that they rely on catalytic questions to create revolutionary new ways of doing business. Such questions reflect their deep bias against the status quo and prompt powerful, personal action.
Great presidents do the same. Just look at Abraham Lincoln. Of all US presidents, Lincoln asked the most questions of any during an inaugural address. Almost one of every five statements in his 1861 inaugural address was a question. These were not garden-variety questions, but courageous ones for troubled times when he sensed that deep apprehension seems to exist among the people. With the constitution then under threat and a country approaching civil war, Lincoln first asked for serious reflection:
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?
Then a plea for hope:
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? In our present differences, is either party without faith of being in the right?
And finally he finished with: We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection ... so that they might all be touched by the better angels of our nature.
As I reflect on Lincoln's legacy of powerful questions, I find myself looking to the present and wondering: What are your most powerful questions, President-elect Obama? What great questions will you ask us on Tuesday (Jan 22) to help this nation and perhaps the world prepare for the next four years? Or even the next forty years?
Clearly, people demand answers to a multitude of questions and they deserve them. But perhaps they would be even better served with probing questions, questions that cause reflection, hope, and perhaps even being touched by the better angels of our nature. Indeed, changing our questions may well change our lives and perhaps the course of a country or the world.
So as President-elect Obama prepares for his first inaugural address by travelling as Lincoln travelled, eating as Lincoln ate, and putting his hand on the Bible that Lincoln's hand once rested on, I can only hope that he will also ask his country and the world equally great questions. Questions that move us to change not only what we do, but who we are. Questions that ask not what our country can do for us, but what can we do for our country. Perhaps then we will stop asking questions like 'How can we get something for nothing?' that helped fuel our current financial crisis and be touched by the better angels of our nature just as Lincoln hoped for 147 years ago. Indeed, if it really is a time for change, it is time to change our questions.