Humanising business,  Leadership,  Personal Reflections,  Storytelling

Lessons from a Friend

In the middle of November, on a gentle grey day, just as the old year was starting to tire and fray, one of my dearest friends, Gregor Grant, died. 

In the long weeks since, there have been bouquets of words thrown down by the many people who loved him, lavishing praise on a wonderful artist, musician, lawyer and, above all, on a man who was curious, funny, generous and loving beyond measure. I have read and listened to everything I can lay my hands on. I have googled his name in hopes of finding more.

But so far, I have not added any words of my own. 

Gregor was a man of both deep faith and deep pragmatism and would, I think, have been impatient with the sort of superlatives and hyperbole I wanted to wallow in. 

I have also been in an odd tangle around presumptuousness and entitlement – who am I to stake a claim with words to this man, this friendship, this grief? 

As though there were a limit on loss. 

As though love were rationed.

And then of course there has been the grief itself, turning my chest to a sodden sponge, muffling everything so that words thunk to a stop, heavy and empty.

But words are all I have. 

In this world at least, there will be no more long suppers, no more imprudent whiskies, no more hugs, no more heated debates, no more music, and no more laughter. 

But I do have words. Because Gregor taught me more about how to live and how to lead than anyone else ever has. My first friend in London, my mentor, teacher pastor, pal. What a shining, golden gift to have been given. 

And so here, at the quiet dark start of the new year, are four of the brightest lessons he taught me. May they be a twinkling, hopeful blessing to whoever needs them. 

Lesson 1 – Create, create, create

Gregor was a brilliant musician and artist, and very funny. My house and inbox are full of his silly cartoons. Our lockdown misery last Christmas was eased when he recorded his ‘Covid Blues’ – phone propped on the end of his piano, Santa hat at a jaunty angle on his head. Slightly risqué little limericks pop into my head unbidden, along with the memory of his laugh – a delighted, childlike giggle. 

Gregor created widely and abundantly, and shared what he created in a spirit of sheer joy – there was never a hint of show-offiness or neediness; he made things for the love of making them, and shared things for the love of us. 

This joy in creating and the confidence with which he shared were contagious and in time helped me to quiet the censorious voices in my head a little and create more myself. 

He was the person I could show my crappy first drafts to, knowing I would receive love and encouragement by return (alongside razor sharp insights which always made my work better). 

I try now to pay attention to this dynamic as a leader, and as a friend. A far cry from an arid brainstorming session in which ‘there’s no such thing as a bad idea’ (urgh), as leaders we can make it a discipline to consciously nurture our own creativity, to be generous in sharing ideas, and to demonstrably delight in the creative process. This helps us to foster vivacious and confident teams who in turn inspire and support each other to create.

Lesson 2 – It’s good to boogie woogie.

Gregor and I shared a love of the piano. My relationship with the piano is an earnest one, formed in lessons and scales and long hours of practice, and shaped by the notes on the page in front of me. 

But Gregor’s relationship with the piano was built on boogie woogie. He could just plonk himself down on a piano stool anywhere in the world, whack out a chord, and go from there. He’d invariably end up encircled by a little audience, smiling and tapping their feet. 

“Loosen up, Jen”, he’d say, as we rehearsed a piece together,

“Don’t worry about making a mistake. Just improvise!”

Except I couldn’t bloody improvise, could I? And that failure seemed to epitomise so much of what I disliked about myself at the time – rigid, shoulders up, clutching the guardrails of the bass and treble clefs. Following to a tee the neat black notes on the page, and scared to death of making a mistake.

Oh, I longed to be able to boogie woogie. But it felt completely out of reach – magical, a level of freedom that was unattainable for someone as uptight as I was. 

Until, one afternoon, Gregor walked me through it. Boogie woogie is, of course – it’s so obvious if you stop being scared long enough to think about it – comprised of a number of separate, fairly predictable, and eminently learnable components. Once you’ve mastered them – a simple eight note ostinato bass, and a few key syncopated right hand riffs – well, then, you can start improvising. 

This is bounded creativity – creativity within a framework. 

And while I will never be able to play boogie-woogie like Gregor, I have experienced, time and again in the past decade, the magic of this bounded creativity approach. 

It can be hard to move beyond a kind of compliant, good-girl, rote learning mindset. It takes courage to get curious, step back, and learn how a thing works from the inside. But over time, this approach has helped me to transform not only my piano playing, but also my cooking, my writing, my parenting and my leadership. 

Leaders! We don’t need to read a hundred books on leadership[1] and commit them to memory! We don’t need to obsessively follow what the last person did. There is no blueprint. No silver bullet. But there are always a number of important underlying components. 

Take a breath. Get inside the thing to figure out what matters. Then practice those basics until you’ve got them nailed – soffritto, iambic pentameter, active listening, whatever. 

Once you’ve done that, well, then you can ‘loosen up, Jen’, and trust yourself to create something new, safe in the knowledge that you’re on the solid ground of an eight note bass. It’s good to boogie woogie.

Lesson 3 – You can just nip out for a fag and miss the bits you don’t like.

Gregor and I did church together for many years. For a season when my children were small, ‘doing church’ for me was more accurately described as ‘doing carpark’ – walking in circles to soothe a crying baby, or playing tag with a boisterous toddler. Often during one of these escapes, I would find Gregor, leaning against his Harley, smoking. 

Around this time, I had a big crisis of faith and a deep rift emerged in my relationship with this church community that I adored. I simply couldn’t fathom how I could continue to love these people, these dear friends, while rejecting a system, a structure and teaching that I could no longer tolerate. I was so angry. So heartbroken. I thought I was going to break apart. 

Gregor was apparently unperturbed.

“Well, you know what I do,”, he said,

“I just nip out for a fag and miss the bits I don’t like”.

My goodness, I was furious. I cried and stamped my feet and called him a coward and a traitor. Here was a man I knew to be brimming with integrity, a fellow leader in this church, how could he …  

… and yet. Something about those words wouldn’t leave me alone. I held onto them, worried at them, rubbed them smooth until now, years later, I have come to see the wisdom and love gleaming inside them. 

It is both eminently possible and almost always preferable to be unwavering in fighting for what one believes in while also loving and staying in good relationship with those who disagree.  It’s really, really hard, and requires fortitude, humility and self-mastery. It’s had me on my knees in the dust spitting blood more than once. 

But it’s worth it.

I’ve learned, too, about the need sometimes, amidst this hard work, to step out for a fag – to protect oneself, gather one’s thoughts, and get perspective. 

This is strength as silk[2] rather than steel. An approach to leadership that is supple and soft but unbreakable, tough but never brittle, full of integrity and full of love.

Lesson 4 – Everything is sacred

If you’ve been around certain religious-types, you’ll know that there can be a tendency towards other-worldliness – a sense that there are some things that are set apart from day to day life and are particularly special, or holy. And then there is the rest – the humdrum, slightly grubby everyday things that, at best, don’t matter as much and at worst are actively ‘wrong’ or somehow dangerous.

On the other hand, you only have to spend half an hour scrolling through social media, to know the kind of cynical despair that can creep in, whispering to us that nothing is special at all – that everything is tainted or broken and so it’s best to numb ourselves by concluding that nothing really matters.

More than anyone I’ve ever known, Gregor turned that whole dichotomy inside out. As a lawyer, Gregor’s field was intellectual property and patent litigation, and over the years he had picked up an immense knowledge of life sciences, tech, and engineering. He loved science. He also loved art, and the aftermentioned boogie woogie and motorbikes and motor racing and skiing, and sailing and Spain and food and wine and detective novels and Jesus and other people. 

He wore a natty silk handkerchief in his blazer pocket. He dyed his hair blue. He sailed across the Atlantic. He laughed until he wheezed at jokes about willies. 

When I was neck deep in toddlers and a newborn and leaking milk and tears, he cycled across north London on a clapped out old racing bike on a rainy Tuesday with a bottle of malbec and a loaf of sourdough to give me communion for lunch. 

Every day with Gregor felt like a celebration.

His approach taught me that nothing is profane. In my faith and life and work, I started out so terribly fearful – believing that success lay in figuring out where the narrow path of correctness lay and then never deviating from it. My friendship with Gregor, in time, helped to loosen those constraints, soften my fear, broaden my horizons, and stretch my mind and my heart wide open.

And there’s more. Because if it is true that nothing is profane, then it is also true that everything is sacred. Everything and everyone is an integral part of this terrible and beautiful life. It is all interconnected, everything is in relationship with everything else, and therefore absolutely everything matters and is worthy of our attention and care. 

Gregor was no mystic. I’m pretty sure he’d never have expressed any of this in these terms. He’d likely have rolled his eyes. There was no intense discipline or practice behind all this, no striving, or none that I ever saw. 

But Gregor had an innate combination of curiosity, generosity and a sense of fun that meant he was very good at being present in the moment. That, I think, slowed time down and enabled him to pay exquisite attention to people and things. He had more friends – real, dear friends – than most of us would imagine possible. And he covered enormous ground intellectually. All without ever seeming harried or hurried. 

And this, I think, is the learning for me. That the more I can stay curious and open, the more I can centre others, the better I get at paying attention, and therefore the more I can learn and give, and the more I can make every day a celebration.

With love and thanks to Gregor Grant, 10 February 1944 – 17 November 2022

[1] But please read mine!

[2] Or perhaps that should be Silk Cut? Though all fags are metaphorical these days, and no cigarettes were smoked in the making of this article.