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Building a Brain Trust

Education leaders face complex, large-scale challenges as a matter of course. Drawing from multiple viewpoints can be the difference between wise leadership and business as usual. Let’s examine some ways you can tap your existing network to create a trusted inner circle that can help you lead with wisdom.

Presidents Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt both took this approach. Jackson’s inner circle was known as the kitchen cabinet; FDR’s was called the brain trust. Call yours whatever you like, just be thoughtful and deliberate about how you create it.


Key Values & Personae

  • Confidentiality: Your brain trust should operate like a safe. The safe interior knows the contents, but only you can retrieve them. If someone seems like they might talk about the ideas and conversations you share among your brain trust, then the power of the brain trust is broken since you’ll have to question whether you can be honest with them. And if you’re withholding pertinent information from your brain trust, then you are only getting a fraction of its benefits.
  • Vulnerability: Often you are bringing your ideas, hunches, and reservations in their earliest stages to your brain trust. You need to feel as comfortable as possible with your brain trust as they dissect your thinking before you put a plan in action, release a statement, or otherwise bring your ideas outside your trusted circle. If you have reservations about whether someone will honor your vulnerability during your idea’s gestation stage, then that person is probably a bad fit for your brain trust.
  • Honesty: The areas outside of your strong suit point to the kinds of skill sets and connections you’ll want in your brain trust. Assess your own strengths so you can honestly identify weak points and potential blind spots. Then list the people you know who can help bolster your leadership efforts with those weak points in mind.

More specifically, there are a few personality types you’ll want to keep a lookout for — both to seek and avoid (adapted from ”How to Run for Office: Building Your Kitchen Cabinet”).



  1. The Auditor: Someone who will give a candid outlook on your challenges. The Auditor’s candor will help you set realistic, achievable goals while assessing blind spots and pitfalls. This person’s role is especially useful because it prevents groupthink from toxifying your brain trust.
  2. The Experienced Strategist: This person will provide insight rooted in their lived experience, and have relevant connections. This person should also encourage contemporary or even cutting-edge methods to help you succeed.
  3. The Credible Optimist: Someone who can articulate a positive path forward, especially when circumstances look grim. This role only works if their optimistic vision accounts for the challenges you face as well.
  4. The Outsider: This person provides unconventional input and makes surprising connections, bringing a fresh outlook to your brain trust.

Anyone whose motivation to increase their personal power or wealth outweighs a common vision for educational equity will hamper your efforts. Members of your brain trust should clearly be motivated to support educational equity. Otherwise, they might fall into one of the following categories.



  1. The Narcissist: This person toxifies any conversation with their attitude and combative discourse. As part of your brain trust, the narcissist treats their opinion as law, attempting to make their outlook into orthodoxy, fossilizing your work before it begins.
  2. The Socialite: This person’s main interest is to brag about their experience as part of your brain trust to friends.
  3. The Full-Blown Idealists This person can be helpful in brainstorming sessions. Beyond that, their outlook will steer you away from viable goals.
  4. The Weighted Blanket: This person only gives comforting half-truths, rather than clear-eyed assessments that might generate healthy debate. Their preoccupation with everyone’s comfort will stunt your work.




  • What is your self-interest for having a brain trust? 
  • Who is in your informal brain trust now?
  • For elected officials: What Sunshine Laws might create a potential legal conflict with prospective brain trust members?
  • Who can you ask about the members of their brain trust?


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