Trump Needs What Henry Ford And Thomas Edison Had: Access To Others' Minds

President Trump dislikes complexity. His staff and advisors work hard to accommodate that.
05/23/2017 07:00 pm ET Updated May 23, 2017

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison both attributed much of their success to the insights and inspirations generated by those around them. In an atmosphere of confidentiality and trust, they gathered a small group of friends around them and explored issues and problems. The key idea was that ten men could generate perspectives which may escape the attention or focus of any one man — even a genius like Thomas Edison. Napoleon Hill wrote about this idea in his now classic Think and Grow Rich more than 75 years ago — he called such groups mastermind groups. Throughout history, many a famous character has attributed their success to membership in such groups. Today organizations such as the Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO), Vistage, and the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) have thousands of members who are furthering their success through the power of a mastermind group.

It may well be that a mastermind group is just what President Trump needs. The question is will current politics and the media let him have one? Mastermind groups work well when they allow us to gain insights into our situation which we otherwise do not see. If we are in a context of trust and confidentiality, we can take advantage of the group's collective ability to "see things differently." The resulting insights empower us to make different choices and to create a different outcome. What we are doing in a mastermind group is finding a way to see past our own cognitive limits. It seems highly unlikely that the President or his inner circle would acknowledge that they too have cognitive limits. It seems equally unlikely that those coming from very different perspectives than the President would be willing to participate — especially if governed by tenets of trust and confidentiality. It seems even more unlikely that the current political climate would allow the President and such a group to maintain the confidentiality required.


Donald Trump and his team are no different from the rest of us when it comes to cognitive abilities. Few of us actively acknowledge the limitations placed upon us as humans. We speak and write as if we have access to much more of the world than we really do.  Our minds dislike ambiguity and doubt. Instead, we have an ingrained desire to construct coherent narratives which leads us to seek confirming evidence, while disregarding information that refutes our prior view – a problem known as confirmation bias. What results is a confidence in our understanding which is greater than the circumstances warrant, and a further confidence in the simplifications we have chosen on which we then base our actions. We have seen both the White House and its political opponents demonstrate such misplaced confidence time and time again. What a mastermind group can do is help the President escape this morass.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman tells us: “We are ruined by our own biases. When making decisions, we see what we want, ignore probabilities, and minimize risks that uproot our hopes.” When we simplify, we allow our biases to help determine the very reality we are creating.

All humans have limited cognitive capabilities. We CANNOT process the complex interwoven infinite string of things that make up whatever it is that reality might be. At best, we can hold 3-9 ideas in our minds simultaneously. Most of us have lots of trouble with the idea that what matters may be one or two steps removed from what we are observing. We know we are limited in this way — but we ignore it. Fine for most of us — but dangerous for the President. The media’s insistence on ignoring this limitation only adds to the turmoil.

Almost every one of us tends to speak as if we have access to something called “the truth.” Whatever access we have, however, is limited by the point above. We cannot process the whole truth. We can only process bits and pieces. The “truth” we are so sure we have access to is a narrative created by our minds to render the world somewhat coherent. Our mind’s goal is coherence NOT truth. Coherence is what fuels truthies. Coherence is what fuels the judgments being made by the President and his team. Coherence is what fuels the narratives told to us in the media. But, coherence is NOT truth.

Coherence is about story telling and making sense. For every situation we find ourselves in, we pick out some aspects of what we are dealing with or encountering and using those 3-9 data points we tell ourselves a story. We then refine that story so that it “fits” into our current understanding of the world — an understanding which itself is the result of the years of prior story telling gone before and our immediate perception of the situation or context we find ourselves in. Our story of coherence is built upon those 3-9 data points, but we will tell the story as if it is based upon some “revealed truth” and as if it covers the “whole” of the situation instead of some part.

In order to avoid exhaustion, we also rely on our prior stories to “explain” current situations. If one or more of our chosen data points lines up with a previously told narrative, it requires a lot less energy to just go with the existing story rather than try to tell a new one. (Which, by the way, is why it is so much easier just to tell “the truth” — there is no need to either come up with a new story or remember what story you may have told previously.) We allow these chosen data points to trigger some meaning in our heads, and we then rely on the triggered meaning, unless or until the prior narrative fails to render the present situation coherent. Triggers are often emotionally based, and, as a result, the meaning we derive requires both story-line coherence and emotional coherence with respect to our present situation. President Trump may be unique in that he allows us to see this process unfold in real time as he does whatever he may in the media and on-line, but what he is doing in testing and playing with a coherent story line we all do.

Most of the time we and others operate by the least action principle: i.e., minimize the effort needed to satisfice our goal. I.e., its easy to rely on the initial stories we tell ourselves than make the effort to compose new ones. Unless we are made aware of the limitations which our original stories impose upon us, we will not recognize the high energy cost of staying with the original stories.

Throughout this process, we ignore the simple fact that we are CHOOSING which of the infinite data points and observations available to us to pay attention to. We make that choice based upon our prior history, contexts, beliefs and based on our present surroundings, context, and situation. This statement needs repeating. We choose what we pay attention to, and then we weave our narrative around those choices. Different people encountering the very same situation are highly likely to make different choices of data points. Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, media pundits, readers all are highly likely to choose different data points to weave a story around. The situation may be the same but the stories told will be different. Each story will be coherent to its teller and to some audience. None of the stories will be whole. None of the stories will be “the truth.” But, every story is likely to have at least someone who believes it is the truth.

In the simple fact that different people are highly likely to make different choices of data points lies the potential power of the mastermind group.

Potential power becomes real power through careful facilitation and a safe, nurturing, confidential context. Thousands of CEO’s and other business executives test their limiting perspectives through the mechanism of a peer-to-peer advisory group. This is a group of 12-20 executives who meet regularly for the very purpose of encountering the perspectives of the others. The members of these groups use the insights of others to full advantage hoping to gain new insights into their own situations and issues. I would respectfully suggest that our President is in great need of such a group to supplant the advice he is receiving from his chosen group of similar thinkers.

Our understanding will always be based, in part on the present context as we encounter it. (Note, by definition, abstract definitions and arbitrary labels are meant to be context free.) The more insight and self-limitation that become evident to us through the group dialogue, the greater the opportunity for us to choose a different context. Because we can only pay attention to a limited number of data points, those we pay attention to will determine our context; context always matters. The power of a mastermind group for the President will come in allowing him to see that there exist other data points for him to grab hold of and weave a story around. The mastermind group can act as a counterweight to the groupthink which is only too natural in any White House, Trump’s being no exception.

President Trump dislikes complexity (as do most of us). Yet we live in a complex world. The President’s staff and advisors work hard to accommodate the President’s desires. Each of us, in order to simplify any context we are dealing with, tends to hide processes which allow inputs to become outputs and treat them as a black box. Hiding processes inside black boxes allows outputs (the end of a process) to be treated as already existing things rather than yet to come into existence potentialities. Often those things do not yet exist. At the presidential level it is all too common for the staff to hide many things from the President in the form of simplifications, labels, and black boxes. They can create more possibilities for action by explicitly recognizing when a black box is being used, and so that the President and his advisors can ask questions in an effort to at least partially reveal those hidden processes. The key strength of the mastermind group dialogue is found in the questions fellow members ask as they attempt to understand issues and problems. President Trump needs people around him who are empowered to ask those very questions.

Cognitive scientists, cyberneticians, and complex systems people know that possibilities are limited by affordances (i.e., only those possibilities that are immediately adjacent (available) to a current situation are capable being enacted). What this means is that choices become available as possibilities only when we recognize them as such – an unattended-to choice is incapable of being acted upon. While possibilities may be limited by adjacency, the President needs to think strategically and have access to staff who can bridge the gap between the adjacent possible and strategic intent. Most presidents before Trump have focused on strategy — Trump seems to be always focused on the adjacent possible. This shift in focus creates another potential contribution of the mastermind group process — namely creating more perspectives and more insights into first surfacing adjacent and available possible actions and then linking those possibilities with strategic goals and intentions. When these linkages are articulated by only those who have already bought into the singular perspective of executive group think there is a grave danger that meaningful and important potentially adjacent and available actions get overlooked or prematurely discounted.

It is obvious to everyone that there exists a major dichotomy between the Trump insider’s perspective and the Democrat’s and media’s perspectives.

The two talk past each other almost continuously. What America needs is for the Trump administration to be able to capitalize on the divergence and use it to generate new perspectives, new insights, and new possibilities for action. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison used a mastermind group for this purpose. More than 60,000 CEO’s (the members of EO, Vistage, and YPO) use existing groups for this purpose to help them run their organizations. Donald Trump needs a mastermind group. America needs President Trump to have one.

So I ask — volunteers?