The holy grail of leadership

In this Feb. 9, 2011 file photo released by Starpix, hair designer and businessman, Vidal Sassoon, stops for a photo at a special screening of "Vidal Sassoon: The Movie,
Dave Allocca

(MoneyWatch) My last haircut was overseen, at least for a few minutes, by Vidal Sassoon -- the man. That chance meeting was one of the most subtle and important leadership lessons you can ever learn. Here it is, but it will take a few paragraphs to unpack and make practical: The leader and the led are one.

I was getting my hair cut and while sitting in the chair, in walked Vidal Sassoon.

He didn't know who I was, and to be honest, I didn't recognize him. Clearly tired, known to be suffering from leukemia, but possessing that same self-made can-do charm that marks him as a British-American hybrid, he greeted the four or so people getting their hair cut, as well as the -- what shall we call them -- artists in his employ. The man cutting my hair, a true genius and up-and-comer in that world, introduced him to me, and the two of us chatted about his philosophy of training people. Sassoon was dressed in a way that seemed to be on the cutting edge of fashion in a way I'd never understand, with a bit of Harry Potter flare. But it was... him. It was also the studio that carried his name. In a moment of disorientation, I wondered: Did he make the company, did the company make him, or did they arise together?

That's the Holy Grail of leadership -- when the leader and the led blur together so that one is the other. This is the moment when the leader is the walking embodiment of the brand and the company.

The advantages of this blending together are enormous, and under appreciated. The person takes on a gravitas that is only possible when the company is behind him or her, or to be more accurate, when he or she is supporting everything the company is, does, and believes. The tribe becomes a set of true believers, but still retain their personality and decision making.

I asked Sassoon about why he had resurrected the guild model to train his staff, and the elderly gentleman began talking, about his commitments to excellence, his belief that long-term investments in people were the only way the business survived. He stopped a few times to compliment the man cutting my hair, pointing out how he was effectively shaping my cut around my head -- I'm still not sure what that means, but it sounds good. He talked about his belief that the best people demand the best training, and are willing to put in the time to really learn. He said that standards must be high, as long as the commitment is reciprocal. As we talked, the man cutting my hair tried to use an electric razor, and it started off strong and then wound down. With an eyebrow raised, one of the trainees appeared almost instantly, and the razor was at full capacity in seconds, thanks to a new battery. My attention was only broken for a second as Vidal continued. The trainees work their way up, washing hair, watching, helping, exuding the values of Sassoon while being both helpful and invisible. Near the end of our talk, I offered to write a USC case study on the guild model at work in the studios that carried his name. Although tired, his eyes opened a bit wider, he joked in that accent that was uniquely his, "Until next time, Prof!"

A few days later, the news broke that he had died. The follow-up meeting never happened, and I'm left with that one impression. (And more than one person at my meeting the next day complimented my hair, a fact that would make the late Vidal Sassoon proud.)

Let's understand this phenomenon -- the leader and the led becoming one. Although the meeting with Vidal Sassoon was random, finding a leader who perfectly embodied the led has happened many times.

In 1992, riding in an elevator with Gordon Binder, then CEO of Amgen. Gordon didn't say anything, but I suddenly grasped what Amgen was all about. When Tony Hsieh walked into one of my Executive MBA classes, it was as though all of Zappos walked in with him. Interviewing Brian France was like asking all of NASCAR questions en masse, in some future version a Twitter mind meld. To meet David Kelley was to suddenly understand the secret DNA of IDEO, and how great business relationships turn into insight for the client.

It's also a lot easier to explain what the company is and does. When Tony went on Oprah, it was as though Oprah was personally introducing the country to Zappos.

Perhaps the best word for this phenomenon is "ambassador." The leaders are the ambassadors of the company. To meet them is to meet the whole. The legalities and formal authority don't matter. The brand that caries the Vidal Sassoon name has been owned by Proctor & Gamble for years, but the blending continues, even after the man died.

The question is, how does this happen? There are two factors at work.

The first is an unending negotiation on what the company is, who it should employ, and the relationship between the leader and the led. Tony Hsieh is famous for asking questions irrelevant to the discussion, but in a way that get at these deeper issues. Vidal Sassoon famously got so mad that he once threw scissors, which stuck in the ceiling. These discussions can happen in elevators, over lunch or drinks, or even during formal meetings. But they must happen. Want to guarantee that they never happen? Then start every meeting with a task-based agenda and stick to it, and then do the work in isolation from one another.

The second is the role of the origin story -- the telling of the founding of the company, and its principles. There is a sense of importance and values that are embedded in the story. As people hear it from the leader, often adding to it or taking interpreting it differently, there's a moment of "sync" that occurs, when everyone thinks: "Yes, that's it." The rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke referred to this moment as a recognition of "shared substance." And "sync" is the word for it, like when your iPhone syncs with your laptop. The two then behave alike, make decisions in the same way, and move as one, because the guiding programming is the same. So it is with the leader and the led.

There is one caution here -- a big neon italicized caution that you ignore at your peril. The pitfalls of the blending are huge, and include hubris, cults of personality, verbal abuse that is tolerated and even repeated, valuing the idiosyncrasies not as oddities but as aspects to be copied, loyalty to the leader seen as the highest sign of leadership among followers, blindness in the shortcomings of the leader, putting the reputation of the leader ahead of a commitment to the truth, an exaggerated belief in the importance of the person, and many more. To blend in this way is to go for the best leadership has to offer, and to miss the mark slightly can do damage to everyone -- the followers, the mental health of the leader, and the in the case of companies, the investors, employees, and customers. I'm investigating this balance in a new book about the dark side of leadership. (More on that in future blog posts.)

Ever experience the "sync" between leader and followers? If so, I hope you'll post a comment below. If you've ever seen one of the pitfalls up close, please let me know. I'd love to talk with you (on or off the record) for the new book.

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.