Errol Gray is a coach for managers and leaders, with extensive experience of helping people move from where they find themselves to where they want to be. Over his career he has been a minister, a corporate executive, and now a leadership coach. Here are Errol’s reflections, demonstrating his own development journey:
“My professional journey is characterised by a deep relationship that has followed its course like a thread. The thread not only joins the events of my working life like beads on a string, but it also tracks the highs and lows of my effectiveness. This is because the quality of my work is directly related to the quality of this relationship; when the relationship is healthy, my work is good and when it’s not, my work suffers.
The relationship I’m talking about, the thread that connects all the events and has a direct bearing on the impact of my work even today, is the one I have with what I know.
What I know
What I know is the most important aspect on my journey. It either nourishes it or starves it. Sometimes I am so impressed with it and at others depressingly dismayed by it. Sometimes it’s full, at other times my knowledge is empty. The knowledge I speak of is the knowledge necessary for coaching and related disciplines.
I’ve learnt the hard way that this relationship, like any other, must develop and mature. My best way of doing this is not as you may think – acquiring ever more knowledge. I’ve tried this. Like Botox, it may change the way you appear but may do nothing for how you feel about yourself. Acquisition, as with many physical things, does not equate to maturity.
As I said above, the measure of my relationship with what I know is not in how much I know, but in how well I engage with what my clients know. Quality in this process is a direct indication of maturity in how I relate to my own knowledge.
There are two phases in the development/maturing of this relationship. And like all developmental phases the early phase includes elements of the later phase and the later phase includes elements of the early phase; transcend and include.
Clearly the first phase in the development of what I know could be described as acquisitive. Nothing wrong with this. No knowledge, no journey. Acquiring knowledge became a fixation for me although my teachers and lecturers never described me as a hard worker. But the fixation was doing two things; one was that I was absorbing knowledge without realising it. This has proved invaluable. However, the second was that my ego went about acquiring knowledge as armour – a weapon and shield. Not valuable.
Acquiring knowledge as armour has done the converse of what was intended; it has emphasised my anxious sense of inadequacy, not diminished it. Using my knowledge to defend or promote myself simply highlights that something about me needs defending and promoting. And that is not true.
In other words my first-phase knowledge became objectified; a different but related issue to acquisition-focus. As the last born of four older siblings, I knew less than everyone else and got ignored in conversations. An assumption about knowledge crept into my mind: I would be listened to and taken seriously only if I knew more than the next person.
On completing studies, my assumption gained traction. The worst aspect of this, and the aspect that most undermined my best intentions, was that I was learning to relate to my knowledge not only as a defense but as a commodity, as an implement to do my work. The more I perceived knowledge in this way, the more a gap opened up between who I am and the knowledge I have. I perceived knowledge as something I had for my use, rather than something that had me for its use. Nothing has been more detrimental to my work than this.
So this principle has become a mantra for me: The wider the gap between who I authentically am and the knowledge I hold as a commodity, the more ineffectual my coaching becomes.
Happily, an aspect that would take me into the second phase was present during this acquisitive phase: Accepting feedback and practicing meditation. This practice began to transform, not what I learned, but how I learned it.
The how of learning involved a transformation of my perception: I slowly began to see things differently. For example: I came to realise that knowledge is about who I am, not what I have. This sounds a bit grand as I write it, but there is nothing grand or quick about letting go of what’s familiar, safe and comfortable which is what is required. It’s been the hardest part of my learning experience.
Knowledge, Insight & Action
Knowledge-as-who-I-am constitutes knowledge as a relationship. A relationship which is more about meaning than about utility, always emerging and evolving. When the static pieces of knowledge I have openly engage with the pieces you have, a release of energy results that is made up of both insight and motivation to action for both of us.
It’s a bit like (what I understand of!) photosynthesis. Where part of the leaf – chlorophyll – meets something from outside itself – light – and in the process that follows, not only the leaf but the whole environment benefits from the release of oxygen. We all get to breathe.
I have seen this over and again in the process of real dialogue where no-one is owning or defending what they know. What I know is of value in the process, but it is destructive to the process when I defend it as if it is my right to be the one who is right. Letting go of this need, i.e. relating differently to what I know, is like a release of oxygen. The other(s) gets to breathe and think more easily. The whole room feels different. There’s a different atmosphere.
Now I need to take these reflections and ground them briefly in the main events of my multi-decade journey: the beads on this knowledge thread.
My time as a minister fitted into the early acquisition phase and included focused knowledge acquisition at university, where I obtained a degree in Theology and Applied or Pastoral Psychology.
I did well in this work. I did well when I loved people and used what I knew. I did poorly when I loved what I knew and used people to parade it. So the gap between what I know and who I am played a big part in the efficacy of my work in the first phase of my career.
I mentioned above that the hardest part of learning was letting go of what has become familiar, safe and comfortable. And it seems true to conclude that an internal transformation of the mind will inexorably lead to external transformation of behaviour. It did for me. I left the safe familiarity of my work and headed into the unknown. A move that would take me not only into new working environments but also to working in other countries, namely Australia and the United Kingdom.
Moving from the Methodist Church into the Head Office of one of South Africa’s top retail chains raised my vulnerability-anxiety and put me squarely into a high acquisition, knowledge-as-commodity mode of working. I squeezed myself into an acceptable-looking corporate persona and when coaching, I depended too much on my little bag of tricks – models, assessment tools, jokes and regurgitated texts.
But, on-going pretending is seriously tiring. Ultimately this forced me back into seeking and accepting honest feedback and performing daily, disciplined meditation. The result was a gradual and welcome move from pretense to presence in this second phase of my career. In this way I assisted managers not only to manage but to lead as well, and leaders not only to encourage followers but to grow other leaders too. Also, managers practised not only how to manage downward with difficult team members but also how to manage upward with awkward bosses.
My coaching clients have included executives from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, the United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore. Practicing presence is my preferred mode of coaching. I’ve acquired knowledge about different coaching processes and styles, coaching’s “powerful questions”, coaching’s ethics and disciplines. But I’m also learning to make these just a backdrop to being calmly present to whoever my client might be.
My presence provides a level of attention and focus on each client’s situation that they will seldom find in other relationships. I still experience the pull into using knowledge as a commodity and can slip into dispensing advice... Usually with regret. But I continue to learn and grow personally, and am better now at not allowing a wedge to be driven between practitioner and practice. Everyone wins.”