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What can we learn about leadership development from Ru Paul's Drag Race?


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Last week I went for a pedicure (hello UK readers, it's allowed here!) I left with much less ragged feet. And an understanding of how utterly screwed up the COVID vaccination system is in the US, where an 80-year-old with no internet access is supposed to figure out how to source her own shot; how we talk about "being American," but how foreign and alien LA feels, where manners - the ones drilled into you since birth as a Southern Baptist - get you sneered at; how you look at the world as the mother of a 3-year-old, because you question everything you do as to how good an example you're setting.


It wasn't a dour conversation. It was full of laughs and discussions about critical topics like how good Nandos chicken really is. But what I remember most are the perspectives on the world that I don't have: I grew up taking for granted state-funded healthcare for all, I wasn't raised to call my elders "Miss Jen," and I'm not a parent. It would be dumb to pretend I understand those things first hand. But I can listen and learn.


Everyone you meet knows something you don't know but need to know. Learn from them.
Carl Jung

When you go to coach school, they tell you that ""everyone in life is a teacher and a student" and you nod and agree, because isn't that obvious? But how often when you're caught up in your own life do you actually apply that perspective? I like to think that I go through life being curious in order to do better. But, whether by default or by design, we so often end up surrounded by people like... us. Which means that our natural tendency can become to assume that our world is the world, so we have it all down. It does you good every now and again to peek your head over your own reality and realize how limited your understanding is.


Some of the best learning experiences I've had weren't posed as lessons. They weren't from someone holding up chalk boards with pithy quotes on social media, or single-idea guides-to-life from authors whose wisdom is seen as some kind of omniscience just because they're words in print. I wrote before about how the best advice I ever got was from loveable rogue Grandad Hogan. I put it to you that you can learn from anything and anyone, as long as you start from the attitude that it's up to you to search for the lesson.


I can see you looking a bit skeptical. It's only right to say at this point that I was once made to watch The Lion King as an example of alternative coaching techniques: Rafiki the monkey is a great example of helping Simba find his own answers, through frustrating him instead of thinking he knows best. Apparently. To be honest, I can't verify this, because I spent most of the time that evening trying to work out how I could sneak out of a locked room to watch the Champions' League. So I know how it feels to be faced with a perspective best described as... seriously, are you kidding me? However, in this case, I have proof. For instance, I know that I learned some of my best upward-management techniques from Jo Frost.


The management lesson of the naughty step


Jo is the star of Supernanny (or Supernanny UK in the US). She is a no-nonsense woman who effectively trains kids the way you might an errant puppy. I was glued to her show... something maybe hard to fathom from someone who has no kids? But really, I was mesmerized by how she was able to handle people. Difficult people. People who don't do what you would really like them to, or react the way you thought they would. Who throw tantrums in frustration. Who behave in ways that are destructive. Yes, these were very small people, but that's all children are, miniature adults with less of a filter. And I see those same behaviors every day in people who no longer qualify for a Happy Meal.


Jo's number 1 tip? The naughty step, aka the time out. What a GENIUS idea. Reflecting on your own behavior as its own punishment! Learning that if you misbehave, there will be consequences! Having boundaries! Refusing to tolerate nonsense! Not being angry, just disappointed! Brilliant. I have put difficult coworkers on the (figurative) naughty step and I can tell you, it works. I'm not going to go into how and why and who. You and I also have to have some boundaries. But I invite you to try it.


Jo's number 2 tip: establish the link between good behavior and reward. Do something good for me, get something good for you. In a repeated and systematic way, until the doing something good is automatic. You may be surprised to learn that the same technique involving an M&M when potty training a toddler also works on executives, but, in my experience at least, it does.


Maybe you're now warming to my stance. Or maybe you're thinking that I watch too much reality TV. Whichever side of the fence you're on, my next example is going to polarize you even further.


Coaching lessons from RuPaul's Drag Race


You've probably heard of RuPaul, but if you've never watched Drag Race... oh boy, this is going to be hard to relate to. Is describing it as a show where drag queens compete to become the next drag superstar, mentored and judged by RuPaul, surely the most successful drag artist of all time, enough to understand the premise? I hope so.

Do I think that RuPaul is a great leader to rival Dr King or Gandhi? No. But my point is that I can still observe the way he approaches contestants on the show and think - oh, that's good. So what can we learn about leadership coaching from the Glamazon?


"Take the personality you show me in your comedy and bring it to the runway"

A recurring theme is the queen who has one aspect of her act nailed, but doesn't seem to be able to join the dots when it comes to the other requirements. The queen who can engage an audience with her stand up, but looks bland on the runway. Or who comes alive at a photo shoot, but lacks confidence dancing. At some point, Ru will tell her that she needs to find a way to access her strengths and bring them to everything she does. That way when she comes across something outside her comfort zone, everything will become not just doable, she'll wonder why it felt so hard before.


Every time I hear the story, I am taken back to the time I stood in front of my team for the first time and felt abject fear. I love talking to people one-to-one, getting to know them, creating human connections. But rooms of people terrify me. The pressure of leadership to have all the answers, be perfect, guide others even when you're lost, all descended on me at once. How was I going to do this as a job?! The answer was, to listen to my inner Ru. I'm messy and don't have all the answers, but I really did want to create a culture full of humanity and care; whenever I spoke as a leader, I spoke from that place, one that was genuinely me. It made the room of people feel like a room of individuals, something I feel much better facing.


Pretty much every single one of my clients has talked to me about some variation on that feeling, and we've found ways to use their strengths in difficult situations. Fortunately for us, we don't have to stitch our own runway looks out of curtains or be photographed diving into a tank full of water at the same time.


"How are you going to use the breakthrough you had last week in your performance this week?"

Oh Ru, such a great open question that empowers the person on the other side of it! Great leadership coaching isn't about telling people what to do with what they've got. It's about helping them uncover what they have, and then letting them figure out what to do with it for themselves. All the while standing by like those bumpers you get at the bowling alley, when asked, to gently help guide things in the right direction when the ball is starting to career off the wrong way.


"Get out of your head and stop getting in your own way"

Ru is no pushover. You don't become Supermodel of the World, be in the Top 100 Most Influential People and win 8 goddamn Emmies by just accepting what life throws at you (this isn't a direct quote, more a kind of spiritual paraphrase). We all get in our own head. We all get overwhelmed and retreat. We all self-sabotage. Most of us will, at some point, have times when we have way less confidence in our own abilities than the people around us. The only way to move forward is to get out of your own head and back in the game. And every now and again we all need someone to tell us that's what we need: a little objective, outside perspective and tough love. Ru is never shy to do so. From a professional perspective, he would make a great coach for those who like a little "real talk".


"This is the Olympics of drag, coasting isn't enough. You need to bring it"

Oh HELL yes. I have never been, and am unlikely ever to be, in the Olympics of drag. But I have occasionally coasted in my career. I have shown up in a "will-this-do" sort of a way. I've felt like I'm tired of pushing the boulder up the hill and can I just stop for a rest? And I have not liked myself when I've realized that's what I'm doing. I have always wanted to be excellent, not some watered down 6/10 version of myself. Every now and again, you need a mirror held up to your face, held with kindness but a lack of tolerance for your BS. If you want to be the best version of you, you need to consciously bring your best, not the watered down, dial-it-in version. That gets pretty hard to do on your own, we don't all have someone with a mirror prepared to do it. Whether he's conscious of it or not, Ru is a great accountability coach.


Shante, you stay [as in, stay full of curiosity if you want to keep growing]


I'm not saying you can learn everything from reality TV. Or that every lesson applies, or that every example that's set is the right one. On the contrary, I think running team meetings where every week you eliminate a coworker by telling them to "sashay away" would probably instil a culture of fear and unhealthy competition. And subjecting your team members to the no-holds-barred public criticism of a panel of self-appointed "experts" whose major contribution is along the lines of "your nose contoring is too harsh for my liking" is probably not the best way to foster a learning environment.


My point is this. None of us knows it all, or even a fraction of it all. So I soak up what I can, where I can, even when all I'm expecting is to be served executive realness while the tea gets spilt.


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