Hair Styling meets Team Leadership

Last February 14th, I was at the En Vogue Salon getting my regular hair cut. The owner, Kim, commented that I’d made considerable progress in my personal grooming and attitude since I had first started coming there. There was, however, one skill that continued to elude me: the stylish hair muss. I finally figured it out, and I realized that there was a lesson about team leadership somewhere in there too.

Crazy? Read on.

The Mystery of Hair Mussing

A little background for those of you who are mystified, as I once was, by the world of hair styling: After you get your hair cut, the stylist will typically put something in your hair to make it look better. In my case, Kim uses a “styling wax” (Paul Mitchell Tea Tree™, if you must know). She dabs a small amount on her fingers, spreads it over her palms, and then with a few expert swipes at my hair makes everything look right. It’s magical! Carson Kressley on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy calls this zhushing, and the best way I can describe it is that it’s an artful running of the fingers through the hair. The result should look in-place, but free and playful. Kim is a master of the zhush, and even though I’ve seen her do it many times when I’m in the chair, I could not for the life of me duplicate it at home. Clearly, my technique was at fault, though I could not understand how I could mess up something as simple as running my own fingers through my own hair.

I mentioned this sad state of affairs to Kim, who cheerfully asserted that it was really easy. She said that we’d do “Hair Wax 101” after the hair cut, and she even promised that she’d wash my hair again if it didn’t work. Now that’s service…you can see why I like going to this place.

It’s All in the Finger Pressure

Here’s what I was supposed to do, as explained by Kim:

  1. Put a small, pea-sized dollop of hair wax onto the tips of my fingers.
  2. Rub hands together, spreading the wax evenly over the fingers and palms.
  3. Run fingers through hair.
  4. Tweak hair until it “looks good.”

I did 1 and 2 just fine. Then, as Kim watched with mild horror, I used my fingers as a kind of meaty comb, pressing firmly into my hair and scalp. I went from the back and front, thoroughly applying the product throughout my hair. The result: spiky helmet head. The problem? Too much force.

Kim commented, having diagnosed the problem, that guys tend to put too much pressure on their hair. She told me that from now on, I was only to run my fingers through the top layer of my hair. She fixed my head as she explained the process; I noted as I watched that I shouldn’t touch my scalp at all. If you do, what happens is that you end up waxing the roots of your hair, which makes them stick up funny or lie flat against your scalp. And to be clear: it’s not a “good look.”

The second trick is just let the hair fall where it wants to. When your hair is cut by an expert, it will do this. The hair wax is to add some texture and some variation to the surface, plus a little bit of sheen. Some bits of hair will be out of place after the zhush. She just flicks those parts lightly until they land better. You don’t want to force the errant hairs into place, because it’ll look unnatural. It’s like dusting cocoa on a cake, or scattering rose pedals or leaves…you want things to fall naturally to look natural.

Application to Team Leadership

About a week later, I was relating this story to the New Media Group. We had been talking about management styles prior to this, and I made the observation that the “artful hair muss” was very much like an experienced team lead. So many new managers think that their responsibility is explicit control over a team or project, so they press hair and apply external controls that end up being unfunky and unproductive. The result is a mess. The experienced team lead, on the other hand, already knows what naturally happens in a team environment and knows how things will “naturally fall” given the personalities involved and the nature of the task. A few artful zhushes and taps, and everything falls into place. There is no need to apply explicit pressure to force things into place, because the experienced team lead knows how things will unfold. Of course, having the project set up right in the first place (analagous to having a good haircut) helps the project fall into place even better. Remember, though, there are two parts: you need expertly cut hair in the case of the hair wax, and you need to have a team that can work together. Every head of hair has its cowlicks and weird quirks that an expert stylist can work around, and the same is true for every team. It’s easier said than done, of course.

So next time you’re putting gel in your hair or energy into your group, consider the light touch and help things fall where they naturally would. You need less force than you might think, and sometimes you don’t need any at all. Think about how you’d organize the team along natural strengths, and what you need to do to make sure that these fall into place naturally. At the very least, it’ll help those long meetings go by quicker.