Eureka is a wonderful feeling. It’s what people like Archimedes say after they have “found it”. It’s what follows “Aha Moments” of creative insight. These happen when people put together things that had not been together before and make those having those moments feel smarter and better about themselves. The strongest leaders and best communicators inspire others by creating the context for those others to have their own Aha moments. Thus the Aha behind leading Aha moments is that leaders help others have them for themselves.

According to Northwestern University’s Mark Jung-Beeman, Aha moments are marked by increased activity in the temporal, right lobe of the brain. This is the part that is “important for drawing distantly related information together, which is a key component of insight”. What Mark didn’t say, but is also true, is that this is both important and pleasurable. Important because insight is an important component of creativity which is required for major changes. Pleasurable because the experience makes us feel smarter.

Wheel of Fortune

The TV game show “Wheel of Fortune” does this particularly well. In this show, contestants spin a wheel to pick up prize money while they put letters on a board to fill in a word phrase. The key to the show’s success is that it is set up to give contestants a bias to keep spinning the wheel and collect more prize money even after they know the answer.  The magic is that TV audience members will also have figured out the answer before the contestants announce their solution. This makes the audience members feel smart.

Gathering for Gardner

Martin Gardner did something similar for over a quarter of a century in his “recreational” mathematics columns for Scientific America. He would pose problems and give people time to solve them for themselves before printing the answers in later additions. As John Railing, the head of the Gathering 4 Gardner explained to me during several discussions at the most recent HATCH Experience, people loved Gardner’s columns because they enabled curiosity-driven “Aha moments”. This is why an initial get together over a long weekend in 1993 has evolved into a biennial gathering of problem solvers and magicians.

As groups gather next week, literally around the world, to celebrate Gardner’s 100th birthday, the same things drive them: a fascination with sharing and solving puzzles, a realization that these activities are some of the best ways to reinforce the importance of STEM (Science, technology, engineering, mathematics) outside the classroom, an understanding of the joy of giving to get. These are gift exchanges. Those gathering bring puzzles to give to others. It’s about making others feel smart, not making others see how smart you are.

Aha Leadership Moments

Leadership is not about the leader, but rather the leader’s ability to inspire and enable others. Thus leadership Aha moments are not about the leader having the Aha, but enabling others to have their own Aha moments. Connecting this with the three levels of engagement suggests that getting people to:

  • comply requires clarity of communication as you tell them what to do.
  • contribute requires a different level of persuasion to help them understand why.
  • commit requires them to have their own Aha moment about the importance of the cause.

So, if all you require is compliance (which is often the case), get clear on what you need. Communicate it clearly. Follow through to make sure your systems and processes enable what you’re trying to enable while minimizing unintended consequences.

If you need people to contribute, communicate with them directly so they can ask questions for understanding. They can’t contribute without understanding what you want and why it’s important.

If you want people to commit to the cause, it must be their cause, not your cause. This is not about sharing your eureka or Aha moment. This is about curating meetings, gatherings, experiences to bring together disparate ideas to disrupt the familiar and enable participants to have their own Aha moments. That’s the Aha behind leading Aha moments.


Click here for an overall executive summary of the New Leader’s Playbook and links to each of its individual articles on Forbes organized by category.