Ronald Reagan’s 10 Rules for Building Brain Trusts

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Great leaders rarely go it alone. They surround themselves, not with “yes-men” who build their own ego, but with the best and brightest who will challenge them at every turn. It’s those fresh ideas that open the door to new opportunities and the chance to be something more.

People who make it to a position of leadership get there because they’re confident, and because they’re good at what they do. Having a healthy ego can help us get the job done and climb the ladder, but truly successful people know that Ronald Reagan had the right idea: surround yourself with top thinkers and you’ll have the ultimate “Kitchen Cabinet.”

President Reagan would be the first one to admit (using his self-deprecating humor) that he wasn’t always an expert on everything. He knew that he couldn’t achieve everything he wanted if he was always the smartest person in the room, and that the mission and its goal were much more important than his ego. He surrounded himself with expertise in all areas of his life so that he could make informed decisions. He understood that seeking out opinions, expertise, and advice from others wasn’t a sign of weakness. It was strong leadership.

Even before his presidency, Reagan sought out highly successful advisors who shared his vision and were committed to seeing it realized—and who would be brutally honest with him. This group became known as Reagan’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” They advised him throughout his journey to the White House and even helped him choose the members of his first Presidential Cabinet.

Whether the arena is politics or business, the difference between mediocre leadership and exceptional leadership often is defined by your ability to cultivate and engage your own Kitchen Cabinet. Business owners and other leaders have a lot at stake—and you should waste no time in putting together a brain trust of your own.

Here are 10 key things Reagan taught me to consider when building brain trusts, Kitchen Cabinet, or whatever you choose to call it:

Get over your desire to be right.

Reagan chose to fill his Kitchen Cabinet with trusted advisors who were accomplished in their own rights, and whom he knew would be tough with him when necessary. In other words, they were not nodding, sycophantic yes-men. They were independent thinkers who weren’t afraid to speak up when they saw an issue differently from the president.

Know up front that putting together your own Kitchen Cabinet won’t always be a comfortable experience. In the process of helping you and advising you, sometimes your brain trust will tell you that you’re wrong. They’ll disagree with you. They’ll have better ideas than you. And you (and your ego!) need to be okay with that. To put it bluntly, if you always want to be the smartest person in the room and are unwilling to surround yourself with people whose strengths are your weaknesses, you’ll be limited by your own capabilities…which might not be as sufficient to the task at hand as you think.

Stock your cabinet with a variety of viewpoints.

Say you’re a financial advisor, and you’ve just opened your own firm. Of course you’ll want to include current or former owners of successful financial services firms in your brain trust. They’ve walked the path on which you’re just embarking, and they can give you invaluable advice on how to navigate the obstacles you’ll be facing. But, don’t limit your choices to older, wiser, within-your-industry types.

In the example above, you might include someone with banking expertise, successful business owners in different fields, and someone who represents your target customer base. The point is, you want your Kitchen Cabinet to represent a variety of different viewpoints and knowledge sets. If everyone advising you has similar experiences and opinions, they’ll be of limited use.

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