Why Napoleon Hill's Mastermind Concept Fails Time And Time Again


In the year 1937, Napoleon Hill wrote a book.
The name of the book?: Think and Grow Rich.

That book skyrocketed in sales and to date has sold over 30 million copies (not to speak of gazillions of copies of PDFs floating around the Internet). And it was in that book that Napoleon Hill underlines the concept of master minds.

Masterminding is when a group of people get together on a regular basis.
And when they get together, they talk about their challenges. These could be business challenges or personal. But the mere idea of getting people together and ‘brainstorming’ as it were, would lead to insights. It would lead to the wisdom of crowds. A situation where one person didn’t have all the answers, but a collective group of people could feed off each others wisdom and come up with a solution. And it could be a solution, or a different perspective. Or even a challenge to the original concept.

There was just one thing wrong with Napoleon Hill’s concept
And that one thing was: How do I implement this mastermind concept? Of course Napoleon clearly gives six steps in the book, and talks in reasonable detail about how to go about things, but there are three core factors between masterminds that work, and those that don’t.

Factor 1: Leadership
Factor 2: Agenda
Factor 3: Showing Up

Leadership is critical in a mastermind.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a group of peers meeting. Some one has got to be the head honcho. And someone has to take charge. There’s no such thing as something that runs itself. The leader must make sure that everyone shows up, and then sticks to the agenda. Nothing is worse than groups of people who turn up, drink yucky ‘cyber coffees’ and go home. It turns the mastermind into a circus, and things quickly go bad.

There needs to be a vice-president as well.
This vice-president needs to have the contact details of all the people either via email or phone or some other method. The communication needs to be two ways. First the vice-president needs to email or get in touch with everyone to make sure they show up.

And then the member who cannot show up for any reason, needs to send in their apologies. Yes, apologies. It’s not good form not showing up, and so it’s important to give advance notice (wherever possible) and to apologise if you’re not going to show up (because of an emergency, vacation or simply because aliens abducted you for three weeks).

And yes, make sure that the leadership rotates after two-three months, so everyone in the group gets a feeling for the responsibility factor.

Which takes us to agenda.

Factor 2- Setting the Agenda:
The agenda is critical for masterminds to work. Most people just show up not really knowing what to talk about. And that’s not good at all. A good idea is always to have a “hot seat”. A hot seat is where one member of the group talks about their issues and projects. About their challenges.

And the group rallies around that project/challenge solving the issues the best they can. They give the person in the hot seat some resources, answers, and even more questions, enabling them to think through the process.

The most important thing for the agenda to work is for the group to reference a common document.

E.g. The seven red bags in The Brain Audit. This enables everyone to be on the same page, and reference the common document. Of course, The Brain Audit won’t work for all issues and challenges, so it’s important that the group at least have access to common material (e.g. videos online, pdf etc).

Whatever the resources, they need to be simple and easy to access. And preferably short. If the group has to wade through 300 pages of stuff, nothing’s going to happen—if you know what I mean.

But, but, but…should you only concentrate on the person in the hot seat?
Ideally you should. The more you focus on the person on the hot seat, the more focused you will be and the more focused the hot seat person will be as well.

It’s not quite the same having five-seven completely different problems tabled in the same week.
That won’t work. We’re busy, busy, busy, aren’t we? To have to focus on eight different businesses or situations would not only eat up a lot of time, but it would need each member of the group to juggle eight balls at the same time. That would dilute your mastermind and quickly throw it into disarray.

Focusing on one person for the week keeps the agenda tight and allows you to understand the problems faced by that one person. And it allows you to collectively work on solutions, more questions and different angles to look at just ONE project or challenge.

But what does the rest of the group do while they wait their turn?
What if the group has challenges that need solving? Hey, it’s not a rule to keep focused on one person. It’s a guideline. You can bring up other issues, even if it’s not your turn in the hot seat. Your mastermind will always have time and space for you. But remember that one of the destructive elements of mastermind groups is that people get too busy.

And so if you do have something that needs discussion, then do bring it up.
But make sure it’s not some massive project and rather something small. And use your common sense or ask whether it’s fine to put table an item. In most cases, it will be fine. Just be sure to know that the hot seat person gets the spotlight for the week. It’s a factor of awareness, not a fixed rule.

With the agenda out of the way, we move to the greatest killer of mastermind groups: Actually showing up.

Factor 3: Showing Up:
One of the biggest factors that unleash a cancer on mastermind groups is showing up. Members of the group regularly get abducted by aliens, or get into an accident with pomegranates raining from the sky, or the latest iPhone sale. If you want to kill a group, make sure that you meet on Skype or phone or in person. That will make sure your group dies faster than ever.

But surely there are mastermind groups that meet and don’t die.
There are indeed groups. But they’re run by fiercely motivated people. But surely you are fiercely motivated as well, you think. And you probably are. But in an increasingly nutty world, our time is fragmented, and aliens visit us much too often. Therefore you need to set up a situation where you reduce the failure factor.

You meet on an online forum.
And right away the hackles of quite a few people go up. After all they’ve had experiences with forums, and not all of them have been good. That’s true, but this is your tiny group. And the biggest advantage of a forum is that people can show up at any point and not be bound by time.

All you need to do is choose a day of the week (or two days of the week): e.g. Monday and Thursday. And then make sure the vice-president sends out the emails to invite folks back to the forum. Over a few months, this showing up will become a habit, and members will show up several times a week—even several times a day.

The forum doesn’t require as much time-keeping as a live event.
Live events are fine for a short period, but anything that requires a long, consistent meeting of folks needs to have something where people can jump in when they have the time.

So let’s summarise:
1) Get your leadership together. A strong leadership is important. And rotate the leaders from time to time.
2) The agenda is easily resolved with the hot seat concept. Work with the hot seat.
3) Kill the group by having live sessions. Or use a forum. And more people will show up. And show up consistently.

A mastermind group is hard work, but not as hard as you think.
Over the weeks and months, it often becomes a place of refuge. A place where you can go to have an honest discussion with people you trust and respect. A place where you can sort out your issues and people hold you responsible. And most importantly it’s a place where the cyber coffee isn’t yucky.

A mastermind can succeed and should succeed.
If you structure it well, it will succeed.
If not, it just fails.

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  1. says

    I was surprised to see this article. Our Mastermind Group is extraordinary. We meet quarterly for 8 hours, and do in-between check-ins. I attribute much of my breakthrough successes to my mastermind. Of course it all has to do with the people in the group , and my 5 masterminders are the best in their fields. I can’t imagine my professional life without my mastermind.

  2. says

    I disagree with much of what you said. It’s true that many MM groups fail. But it’s not because the concept is flawed, but rather because the members lack the right attitude and the commitment to make it work.

    I’ve had a couple of them in the past. When the members met as the said they would, we had fantastic meetings. But, when they allowed other things to encroach on the times that we had set aside for them, they were a complete waste of time.

    There’s no need to have a president and vice-president, or even an agenda. You simply have each person talk about his/her business for 10 or 15 minutes to begin with, and then perhaps 5 minutes during each session thereafter. Each takes his/her turn. As each business is discussed, others will get ideas on how to solve the problems mentioned.

    The MasterMind is the additional mind that results from everyone discussing one another’s business. For example, if there are five people in the group, then a sixth mind is created, in that some or all of them will think of things that they would not have thought of on their own.

    In groups where there is commitment and people do show up, there’s often the wrong attitude. (The same problem occurs in many networking groups.) The right attitude is, “What can I give?” The wrong attitude is, “What can I get?” Groups tend to unravel when members with the wrong attitude feel that they’re not getting enough. In groups, of any kind, where members are trying to outgive one another, the level of success is absolutely astounding!

    Having only one person speak at in a given meeting also stifles the mechanism of a MM group. Sure, some people may come up with a few ideas to help another, but it’s much more likely that they will if everyone talks about their businesses.

    I encourage you to obtain a copy of the presentation that NH gave on this topic. He lists the five or six men who met in the MM group he describes. One of the them was F W Woolworth. The others, whose names escape me, also were at the beginning of their careers. NH stresses that none of them had any money. Yet, all of them developed huge businesses.

    There’s a lesson there for all of us.

    • says

      I agree with the commitment and attitude part of your comment. But, in my experience (over the past 10 years) facilitating these types of groups, having a leader and an agenda keeps everyone focused and primed to “give”. Without those things, the group can quickly become a coffee clatch.

  3. Phil Strange says

    Sean, although I´m not sure I’ve been getting the Mastermind to work perfectly I don’t think it’s supposed to work the way you’ve explained. I have a group of mentors with whom I consult from time to time and they help me see things from a different perspective, either through experience or specialist expertise that they have and I don’t.
    As far as I have understood the Mastermind group is totally informal and does not even have to meet. YOU drive it, interacting with each of the other members individually, offering something to them and then getting something back. If some of them happen to know each other and you can meet in small groups then fine but I don’t think that’s the idea.
    Cheers, Phil.

  4. says

    The Master Mind concept doesn’t fail. The people in the group fail. There is not enough commitment on their part. It is going to be one or two people in the group that cause the group to fail because they are going to create situations that contradict the harmony required for the success of everyone

  5. says

    The Mastermind Group concept is an integral part of the business development programmes we run. What we’ve learned echoes Sean’s comments:
    – good leadership is essential because it ensures everyone gets air time whether they want it or not. Our programme has a trained facilitator at most of the mastermind groups. It costs us money, but we know from experience that our total programme experience is much richer when the mastermind groups work
    – structure is essential: we start with a go-round where people talk about what they said they’d do at the last meeting, what they’ve actually done, and what they intend to do in the next two weeks. then we get on to obstacles and strategies
    – honouring your commitment to turn up only gets you to first base. We have explicit agreements about how accountable we wish to be to the group, and give the others authority to hold us to a higher standard

    Phone groups work OK, but there is something precious about physically meeting, and that is the degree of commitment required to get there. People engage more (and therefore get more) when commitment is present. Online forums you can drop in and out of don’t engender the kind of commitment required for mastermind groups to inspire their members

    Mastermind groups are a highly effective element of scaffolding for your business growth.

    http://www.biztime.co.nz (interactive coaching programme)

  6. says

    I couldn’t agree more! Here’s the problem, there are lots of nuances that attribute to their success, but when you’ve got a group that is organized and committed it can be the most powerful asset to your business.

    Our business is to assemble and facilitate these boards for business owners, but we have also created a step by step guide for those that want to create their own. We beleive in the concept so much that we would rather give you the tools to do it yourself correctly, than not do it at all.


    • says

      Many of you have visited the link above. Sorry to say the link has changed. In our research we found 2 things.
      First, a peer advisory board that doesn’t have a designated facilitator fails 9 out of 10 times. Why, because without someone to officially lead, the group can get bogged down with too many agendas. Second, we also found that too many business owners are bogged down by conventional wisdom and their own belief systems. That is why we created The Human Performance Academy a 4 module program to achieving Peak Performance. Click here to download the free introductory program. http://mentalcompass.com/download/
      We still believe in the power of Peer Advisory boards, we have just gotten new information on how to help people be their very best.

  7. says

    Gis said:

    I started a Mastermind group for the sole purpose initially to study Think And Grow Rich. Every week we would discuss a chapter. As we neared the end of the book, I decided to add structure. I realised that we were beginning to get a little disorganized in our approach and perhaps not totally benefiting from our hour and a half. So now with structure, there are specific times allotted to discussing members’ wins from the past week with a focus on one particular member’s problems during a given meeting. What started out as a book study, has turned into a once a week meeting. Members a making leaps and bounds in their businesses…making decisions they had not thought of or thought possible, and just thankful that they have a place to grow and learn safely.

    You’ve given me more ideas still and I’m excited to test and see what’s going to work for our group.

    Thanks as always for your insight

  8. says

    Via email:

    You might want to re-examine the “leadership” issue. I’ve been in three mastermind groups, none of which had a “head honcho.” And they’ve all worked amazingly well, including my current one. We do have an agenda with a hot seat, and we all have a commitment. But no one’s in charge.

    I actually believe that having a “head honcho” or a vice president could undermine the effectiveness of the group- because the idea, at least for in my experience, is that each person shows up 100%, with no one in charge. Having someone in charge works against the individual leadership autonomy and responsibility each person needs to show every time.

    Just a counter-thought.

    It’s a good counter thought.

    And here’s one back…
    If your group consists of people who take charge, then it works.

    Put even one or two vibrant people in a group, and it infuses the group like lemon infuses water. :)

    However having said that: I’ve seen groups with lousy leadership and that too falls apart pretty quickly. As we’ve discussed before there’s no one way. It’s just a way that I’m proposing, because I’ve seen it work with most BNI groups.

    Just trying to make things work for now. Not necessarily work perfectly :)

  9. says

    @ Michael: I started up a Mastermind with some top notch marketers. And despite the drive of all of us, the whole thing fell apart in three sessions.

    @Rae: Will have a look at the book.

    @TwentyTwenty: Yes, that’s correct. Who does make the difference. But often we have situations where “who” is not possible. And this is more the case online than offline of course. In this case, a “common page” is used as a format. Every one works from a “common page” or sings from the “same page”. The underlying principle then switches to WHY. 😉

  10. says

    Hey mate,

    Great article on masterminding. You remind the reader that if your mastermind is NOT set up as a Mastermind, then it it doomed to fail. Your points on attending and keeping it focused are vital.

    In my book, 2020 Mastermind, we share a few more guidelines that are vital to the life and success of both real time and online masterminds.

    One of the most important, is to be very selective with WHO YOU decide to invite to your mastermind.

    Surround yourself with people who are STARS, people who are taking massive, focused, directed action on their goals and dreams.

    Because if you invite anyone else into your mastermind, it will just wither and die.

    Have a great day Sean!

    Mr. Twenty Twenty
    Ex Hostage – Professional Visionary
    Giving the Visionaries of Tomorrow the tools they need to take massive action today! Whoo yah!

  11. Rae says

    Barbara Sher’s Success Teams from her ‘Wishcraft’ book aren’t as exalted as Napoleon Hill’s Mastermind teams – yet they work pretty well. Particularly as a group that has a finite life of a few weeks for each member to get some movement on a goal/project.

    As far as I know – the book is now a free pdf download. It was published in the 1970s when she was working as a counselor in New York. (She’s still working in her 70s as a presenter and writer.)

    On line is not as good as live, IME, because the very act of preparing and turning up to the meetings and making the call to your buddy for the week is a great way to chop off the pitiful excuses. Progress is more certain.


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