The humanity of excellence: crossover from coaching practice to PhD

Tuende Erdoes portrait

Tünde Erdös

Tünde Erdös is a highly experienced executive coach who is currently doing her PhD research on coaching presence and the impact it has on coaching effectiveness with Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam Business Research Centre, NL in collaboration with Ashridge Centre for Coaching, UK as well as Case Western Reserve University, US. In other words, she investigates certain factors that potentially impact the effectiveness of coaching, exploring what really happens in coaching sessions.
In this interview dr. Claartje van Sijl talks with her about excellence and the personal deep motivation that drives her PhD project. We conducted the interview through several emails back and forth.

Claartje: thank you so much for your willingness to do this interview, Tünde. As a PhD candidate with a lot of professional experience in coaching, you surely have many exquisite insights to share with us. I would like to start with ‘excellence’ — a notion widely discussed in the coaching sphere and nearly omnipresent, I dare say, in academic policy and in assessing academic professional development. What are your views on excellence, as a PhD candidate and as a coach?

Tünde: On reading your question, I felt tempted to look up the word ‘excellence’ in various dictionaries and online sources because the accolade ‘excellent’ struck me as quite ‘superimposing’. Can we humans ever reach excellence? I love this question as it awakens my curiosity around myself: am I excellent or is my project excellent per definition? Thank you for giving me this opportunity to reflect this notion. 

In effect, knowledge sources link excellence to the Greek philosophers, among whom Aristotle’s work ‘Doctrine of the Mean’ is the most notable contribution, and the belief that ‘arete’ as expressive of both ‘excellence of any kind’ and ‘moral virtue’ is ultimately bound up with ‘fulfillment of purpose or function’: the act of living up to one’s full potential. 

That struck a chord with me on how I am driven to be as a researcher and a coach: 

Following my bliss – the purpose is doing ‘research’ inspired by some higher ‘sense’ or ‘spirit’

In my case, my research project is carried by my memories of a transformational moment that I experienced owing to one client’s high level of perceptiveness and ability to articulate what was going on for her in our relationship. In my darkest moments, this client’s revelation is the ‘star’ that guides me and encourages me to keep on going: the wish to honour that particular client’s contribution to my learning and ‘knowing deep down’ that without that transformational moment my research question would never have been born. Doing research is a way of being in alignment with ‘how I strive to be with my clients’ as an act of following my calling.

C: First let me say that I absolutely love the philosophical approach you are taking in your reflections. I deliberately tried to not frame my question in a philosophical way, but my enthusiasm will hardly surprise anyone who knows about my background in Greek philosophy. It feels like magic that you picked up on it. And I deeply agree, in fact, I am convinced that Aristotle’s perspective on ‘arete’ is very helpful for having a healthy, humane understanding of excellence that includes so much more than a meaningless superlative like ‘best’. In particular I appreciate how an Aristotelian take on excellence includes what is at stake personally in research. I have argued before in an article on research integrity that it is nonsense to say that we can leave our personal experiences behind when we are practicing so-called objective science with the highest level of integrity.

T: What a magical synchrony! And there is a second aspect to how I am driven to be as a researcher and a coach that connects to Aristotle’s view of excellence bound up with fulfillment of purpose:

Passion & Virtue – Being the researcher for the sake of researching.

I started out on a part-time PhD with no real idea of what I should research and ended up being in a full-time project that rocks my world: it’s fun. Sometimes people ask me: ‘You are investing yourself so much in this project, what are you going to do with this once you’re done?’ and the only thing I can truly answer is: ‘I don’t know. I just feel that I want to do this project now, and I want to do it properly. I will know what to do with ‘it’ when I am done.’
I prefer to experience the joy of doing it rather than seeing research as something ‘dead serious’, by which I do not mean that I am not intent on doing a serious piece of research. Quite on the contrary: In practicing ‘arete’ and actualizing our potential in the process of doing research, there seems to be a safeguard against the risk of mistaking excellence for perfection, which strikes me as a sheer illusion. We express something of who we are in the process of doing research, more so than in the end results of that research. There is such joy in the proces of living up to our potential. I believe that experiencing joy along the way by experimenting and being a curious explorer makes up the virtue element of excellence. The Greeks call it eudaimonia: the dynamics of being happy by staying in action as the expression of being ‘excellent’ or virtuous. Along these lines, excellent might be some sort of understanding how to flourish as a human being by paying attention to the energies of the soul that is constantly in action seeking happiness in doing research. In effect, expressing who I am in the process of doing research is precisely how I conceive of being as a practitioner too: the ‘how’ is in full alignment with the ‘what’ of the research: being more and doing less as expressive of how coaches need to be with their clients rather than what tools they need to use to facilitate clients’ reaching effective results.

C: Does excellence imply success? Or, when do you consider a PhD successfull?

T: Does this type of excellence imply success? I don’t know. What is success? George Leonard, the 6th Degree Black Belt Master and Author says that ‘Being willing to see just how far you can go is the self surpassing quality that we human beings are stuck with. Evolution is a whole long story of mastery.  It’s being real. It’s being human. 

Staying human in what we do and strive to achieve might be a good idea where to start. 

C: Yes, I’d say staying human is key to thriving as a researcher.
As you describe your deep, personal learning experience with a client that put you on the path to this research: many academics personally identify with their work. PhD projects in particular often have such a very personal drive behind them. While a PhD is not by implication a life’s work, you are fulfilling a life purpose in your PhD. This deep personal drive is a good thing because it gives you the immense energy and resilience that you need to accomplish a PhD. Could you share something of your own experience where you felt this deeper purpose gave you the resilience you needed to deal with a difficulty or setback in your PhD project? 

T: Deep purpose seems to have its place in my PhD project. One dark moment, to name but just one, in which it came to my rescue was when I entered the recruitment phase to get 150 coach-client pairs into the boat. Given the high level of complexity, longitudinal character, technological twist and overall demanding research design I came to face a major challenge in finding coaches who would be ready to engage in the process with me – and not just with me but with two clients of theirs. If it were not for the bliss that I follow in this endeavour, I would already have thrown in the sponge. After the umpteenth interview, each lasting one hour minimum, I felt like I had turned into some sort of slot machine that would stubbornly persist yielding the gains: the number of participants that I knew we would need to establish statistical relevance. I was surprised by how easily my body – my personal instrument I recur to in seeking to measure my state of eudaimonia any given moment – was coping with the exposure to this immense performance pressure, the anxieties around failure and shame, and the isolation I was experiencing in the recruitment phase as a result of social deprivation. Deep purpose works deeply.  

C: Oh yes, this is such a great example of how being connected to a deep purpose enables us to move mountains. I would say this is what I love so much about academics: how they use this deep purpose to overcome personal anxieties around failure, shame, and isolation.
In academia competition for scarce funds and recognition is so fierce that the pressure to perform is high. A tough culture of working hard, combined with intrinsic motivation and perfectionism, create a toxic mixture for our mental health, especially for those in precarious, temporary, fixed term positions. Fortunately, awareness is growing about these issues. In a previous interview in this series, we discussed how the notion of thriving might be a healthier, more human criterion to assess PhD succes or excellence. How do you feel academic working culture affects you personally? 

T: Yes, I am fully aware of this discrepancy. One of the pressure points can be getting the funds for doing research. I certainly am among the very few who can count themselves fortunate to have set aside the funds over the years to ‘have a dream come true.’ I had had the resolve to have the funds in place for when I would feel ready for the dream to come true in whichever shape it would reveal itself to me. I was resolved to have some freedom and flexibility in how to navigate the precarious nature of having a dream come true, if I were ever to reach that stage. That’s about the only thing I had always been aware of. Be prepared to be independent when the time is right for doing whatever you might need to do in life next.

However, maybe the toxicity of the mixture you are describing was just curiously shifted in my case, and maybe I simply experienced it earlier when in the process of setting the funds aside – in other words it is always there no matter how you will approach doing research or living a dream unless you have blue blood and the financial stability inherited from your parents or ancestors, I do remember clearly how difficult it had been to exert myself the years before I embarked on my PhD journey in putting aside the funds for the research – the dream I was feeling that I might be gifted to live. So, maybe the toxicity was simply time lagged. 

This being said, I had not planned to do research or be an academic. The dream as such was manifesting as a piece of research, and it might well have come any other way, or not. I am not sure I will ever become an academic either, nor am I sure whether I will use the findings towards a specific purpose. It is true that I have been invited to design a training programme around my findings by a renowned institute just recently, which I might accept, or not. Yet, I do not wish to be straightjacketed in any way – either by someone telling me what to research or the constraints of scarce funding – because that would jeopardise what I have been meaning to say above about doing research being about eudaimonia for me. Indeed, doing research is about allowing myself to have the leisure to do research through thriving. I might sound preposterous here and I am sorry if I do but I am not sure I would want to do research without first reflecting for myself: what is your purpose of doing research? 

Paradoxically, the very fact that I am not reliant on external funds appears to attract funding. Without being specifically intent on being successful, I was able to source financial support for my research project from no fewer than three different institutions and it didn’t even turn out to be difficult. This funding success might be owing to the research design, which is claimed to be so ‘excellent’ that it simply pulls in the funds, This in itself might be down to the fact that I continuously experience the arete that Aristotle speaks about to do research from a muse’s perspective: the research design is carved out of the marble piece that is simply there – rather than being carved out of a marble piece that had been made to order – very much in a similar way as Michelangelo would create his Pièta: I take the freedom to carve out the ‘figure’ the way it unfolds and as it wants to emerge without needing to make too many compromises. It accumulates an energy that bears the mark of excellence. What I am trying to say is that the passion and happiness of doing research seems to ooze some attraction that is difficult to withstand.   

Aristotelian excellence and personal leadership in research

C: That is a wonderful observation, that I can confirm from personal experience as well as from my professional experience as a coach. If you are expressing your ‘arete’, if you are excellently taking action in alignment with your deeper purpose, this is very attractive to all around you. In coaching terms, this is often linked to personal leadership. What do you notice, as an experienced coach, about the personal leaderhip and work-life-balance of academics? What advice would you have for academics who feel like they need to do something about these things but have no idea where to start?

T: If we translate this conversation about Aristotelian ‘excellence’ into personal leadership, what would that imply? For me, doing research has never been a ‘must have’ towards achieving something else, e.g. to become an academic or earn more money. Doing research is not a means to an end. It has become a dream work once I spotted the piece of marble in the form of my transformational coach-client relationship that I am mentioning above. And this reflects my very personal leadership attitude: do things because you are happy when doing them – thrive, because you feel inspired and follow that inspiration and excellence rather than calculate what you could create in terms of success if you chose a particular path. That’s when ‘balance’ comes naturally and does not need to be ‘created’ as some sort of remedy to some prior personal dysfunctional way of being in the world. I believe that I would not have been gifted with this insight if I had not first undergone major inner reflective work being a seeker. So, that’s a place where to start: who am I in this world, how am I in this world and what am I called to do in this world? When I am done, who will I be when I look into how I will be? And maybe it is about about a lot more things, which I am not aware of at all. And that’s where coaching is so meaningful and valuable. It provides an opportunity to explore one’s self-awareness, without which the whole discussion here would be utterly futile.

C: Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us, Tünde. It has been a joy to talk with you about the crossover from your coaching practice to research and finally back again to coaching. I firmly believe that coaching is meaningful and valuable when we are excellently doing research, or doing excellent research that matters. I wish you lots of joy and fulfilment as you are realising your dream through your PhD project. Readers who would like to read more about Tünde Erdös’ work can visit and


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