I have learned in life that you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with. So often we focus on developing ourselves to be the best that we can be, that we forget what an instrumental role those surrounding us play in our success.
Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, believed in the power of people — all people. As a result, he worked to find the best and brightest people for each area of his administration to create a brain trust around him that would contribute to his ability to make intelligent, informed decisions. He wasn’t afraid to be outshined. Instead, he knew that the key to his success and effectiveness would be having leaders in their respective fields join him and support him in his vision for the United States. Rather than shunning or being intimidated by the brilliance and experience of those around him, he welcomed it.
While governor of California, as well as during his time as president in Washington, D.C., Reagan relied on what he fondly referred to as his “kitchen cabinet.” It was a group of friends who were eager to apply their skills, energy and experiences to advance and support the goals of Reagan and his governorship and presidency.
The people who comprised his kitchen cabinet were successful, accomplished individuals in their own right, not nodding, sycophantic yes-men. Reagan knew these trusted advisors would be tough with him when needed, yet always supportive, even when they disagreed with the final decision. They shared his vision and were committed to seeing it come to pass, no matter the personal effort or sacrifice it required.
“A true leader recognizes the need to be surrounded with excellence and is wise enough to create an environment where other voices are heard and where advice can be freely given and graciously received.”
Reagan, using his self-deprecating humor, would be the first one to admit that he wasn’t always an expert on everything. What’s more important is that he felt that he didn’t need to be. He chose to surround himself with expertise, creating a powerful brain trust that allowed him to make informed decisions. That is true leadership.
The difference between mediocre leadership and exceptional leadership often is defined by your ability to cultivate and engage your own kitchen cabinet. A true leader recognizes the need to be surrounded with excellence and is wise enough to create an environment where other voices are heard and where advice can be freely given and graciously received.
As a leader, it is essential to have a solid understanding of your shortcomings. Knowing the areas where you are weakest and reaching out to find people who are skilled and strong in those areas builds a strong foundational brain trust around you. This humble assessment is one of the greatest qualities I saw when serving in Reagan’s administration, and it was an essential part of his success and effectiveness.
Have you taken an honest look at yourself recently — or ever? Do you know what areas of leadership are your weakest? Are you comfortable with identifying and admitting the places where you are not an expert, and are you willing to reach out for advice and expertise from those who are? Do you have a list of people who come to mind who you can ask for solid advice and know that they feel comfortable being completely honest with you?
Developing a brain trust is twofold. It is first about recognizing what areas in your life and business most need expert counsel; then it is about reaching out to trusted individuals for their wisdom, honesty and feedback. Having a brain trust is about growth — acknowledging your own blind spots and being humble enough to recognize the value of outside input. This is an integral part of your pursuit of leadership excellence.
Start building your kitchen cabinet by finding two to five people you trust. Cultivate genuine friendships with people who can add value to your personal and professional life in tangible, substantial ways. Discuss big decisions with them. Honestly talk with them about successes and failures, your hopes and fears.
So who should you include in your kitchen cabinet? Look for people whom you trust and admire and who already add value to your life or have potential to do so in the future. These people should be willing to be brutally honest with you, share your vision and be success-oriented. They don’t have to be close friends, and maybe they shouldn’t be. They may be business associates, mentors or acquaintances that you admire. It could be your child’s soccer coach or a yoga instructor, who you value their commitment to health and wellness. In other words it is good to have a well-rounded “kitchen cabinet” that adds value to all aspects of your life. No formal invitation to “join my kitchen cabinet” is required; just ask them if from time to time they would be willing to let you pick their brain for advice or would be willing to share some of their professional insight and experiential wisdom with you.
My kitchen cabinet is an unlikely collection of friends and mentors who have been brought into my life in various ways. They are handpicked individuals whom I trust implicitly for advice and counsel. When I need to make a crucial business decision or an important personal decision, I talk to my kitchen cabinet. If four out of five of my kitchen cabinet members tell me not to do something, I probably won’t do it. But if four out of five tell me to take a risk, I might take a calculated risk and try to make it happen. I trust and value their various backgrounds, experiences, and combined expertise to steer me appropriately.
“As others invest in you, always look to invest in the lives of others, perpetuating that positive cycle of encouragement, growth and excellence in leadership.”
Life and business experiences have shown that having a brain trust or a kitchen cabinet has been essential to my personal development and growth, as well as my business success. Establish your own kitchen cabinet and surround yourself with quality individuals who encourage you to be your best. As others invest in you, always look to invest in the lives of others, perpetuating that positive cycle of encouragement, growth and excellence in leadership.
Dan Quiggle, founder of The Quiggle Group, is a former aide to Ronald Reagan, entrepreneur, speaker on leadership and emotional intelligence, and author of Lead Like Reagan. He presented a keynote at MPISCC’s (WE)Con in early 2016.