Building Your Gravitas

Article by Crispin Blackall, Image Credit August de Richelieu (Pexels)

The word gravitas goes back to the ancient Romans and derives from the Latin gravitas, meaning weight, and from gravis heavy. It implies sound judgement, clarity of purpose, ability to yield influence and having organisational power.

“In the world of corporate advancement, headhunters, talent managers, and HR professionals always ask themselves whether a person has the gravitas required of a role? Does the person have the necessary presence, speaking skills, and the ability to read an audience or situation? Does he or she have the emotional intelligence that enables him or her to easily influence others?

‘Finding Gravitas’ Kets de Vries 2015, INSEAD Knowledge

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘gravitas’ personally my first thought is often of (the TV show) Brooklyn Nine Nine’s Captain Holt when he says “do you know what gravitas sounds like…” (and if you don’t watch below).

While the reference is humorous, the concept of gravitas is clearly not just about having a gravelly or booming voice, it represents an innate aspect of leadership, an individual with powerful gravitas has something special about them, a reason people look to their leadership and seek to follow them.  

But what is it?  Some people believe that you born with it, but is this true or can you build your personal gravitas? People who exude gravitas lead the room, they are able to influence and facilitate those around them.   

Gravitas is for business leaders, what charisma is for movie stars

Gravitas is NOT Arrogance

Authentic gravitas is a summary of how you are perceived in your ability to lead. That means it is how others see you, not how you see yourself. You can bring a wealth of skills, experience, knowledge to a leadership position but your ability to engage and motivate others is tightly linked to how they perceive you and that comes from your gravitas.    

Many people directly associate gravitas with being solemn, formal and dignified but I personally believe that is much more than that.   There are numerous inspirational business leaders who can balance gravitas with self deprecating humour and fun while still motivating and engaging teams.

In his 2015 INSEAD Knowledge article ‘Finding Gravitas‘ Manfred Kets de Vries, refers to the 3 C’s of gravitas; being Courage, Communication and Composure. This is a good list but I would like to add a couple of others; Authenticity and Presence.

AUTHENTICITY: How we speak comes from our personal vision, values, experience and knowledge.  When you speak as a leader,  people are constantly assessing you, they are looking at you to determine a sense of trust, shared values and very importantly clarity of direction.  This is the innate sense that what the leader is saying makes sense and is a position that you can align with and follow.

COURAGE: A leader is someone not afraid to stand up and have the hard conversations, to confidently step forward and engage. It comes from being prepared to take a risk that may be seen as going against popular opinion, being bold,  inspiring and energising teams with a powerful and compelling narrative.

“In business, courageous action is really a special kind of calculated risk taking. People who become good leaders have a greater than average willingness to make bold moves, but they strengthen their chances of success—and avoid career suicide—through careful deliberation and preparation. Business courage is not so much a visionary leader’s inborn characteristic as a skill acquired through decision-making processes that improve with practice. In other words, most great business leaders teach themselves to make high-risk decisions.” 

Reardon, HBR, 2007

COMMUNICATION: We all have our own unique voice that we bring to presentations, to meetings and to conversations.  How you communicate is a key attribute to how you are perceived.  Bringing your vision and values to your message, being able to talk with an authoritative voice, to present without umms and errs.  You need to be able to tell a compelling story that truely resonates with the audience, your voice should carry in the room and you need to be able to rapidly adapt and respond intelligently to questions.  The leaders we trust moderate their tone to deliver a message, they manage their emotion to strengthen the message and they articulate with clarity to ensure there is a common understanding of the message.

COMPOSURE:  The ability to walk into a room of people and present confidently takes composure, if that room is potentially hostile it is a lot harder.  Learning composure is often taught by actors (it is not that different to walking on to a stage), preparing your voice with vocal exercises, learning how to stand, how to breath and what to do with your hands (or what not to do).    The ability to listen and absorb questions and feedback calmly and to not let any negative emotion be displayed is all about creating a sense of composure.  

PRESENCE: There are people born with natural attributes that aid with gravitas, height, confidence and a booming voice are all very helpful in establishing your presence, however if you are short and don’t have a loud voice there is still plenty you can do.  Consider how you look – ensure you dress to impress, build a professional wardrobe that speaks to your brand.  Body language is very important as people perceive these non verbal cues to assess your leadership message.  (See TED Talk – “Your body language shapes who you are” by Amy Cuddy)

RESPECTFUL: Take time to listen to others and be visible about doing it, be generous in recognising other people’s achievements.  When managing a crisis, aim to stay cool and be level headed to lead by example. A strong leader will be using emotional intelligence to better understand how others are feeling and how to moderate their own responses.

“Generally, the assumption is made that people with gravitas lead better, manage better, present better, and network better. And often, it becomes the determining factor that makes or breaks careers.” 

Kets de Vries, INSEAD KNOWLEDGE 2015.

So Can I Build It?

Yes like any other skill this is a leadership muscle that requires work to build and maintain.  If you choose to work on building your gravitas competence it is a matter of continual improvement.

“Executive presence comprises three universal dimensions: gravitas, communication, appearance. GRAVITAS is exuding confidence, its grace under fire, showing teeth, speaking truth to power, demonstrating EQ, burnishing reputation & standing, radiating vision and charisma.”

Cracking the Code: Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Executive Presence and Multicultural Professions, Centre for Talent Innovation. 2013

In a previous executive role I used to run a regular coaching session for general managers to help them work on their gravitas strengths and identify gravitas weaknesses, to then develop and build that capability into a key strength.  

A first step is to start with reflection and by seeking out feedback from people who you trust to be honest and to not sugar coat the truth. When you have a good assessment of your personal strengths and opportunities for improvement, start building your development plan to lift your game in each category Authenticity, Courage, Communication, Communication, Composure, Presence and Respect.

The Gravitas Trap

Unintentionally acquired over years of practice, this style of management projects such weight, seriousness and authority that others begin to perceive the leader as unapproachable, distant, judgmental and, worst of all, simply boring.

Ariel Group

A few ways to check if you are in a Gravitas Trap

  • Do people think that you are unapproachable
  • Do you tends to hide vulnerability or weakness
  • Are you closed to innovative ideas or direct feedback from colleagues
  • Do you believe that the importance of your role do not allow for spontaneity or risk-taking

How to dig yourself out of the gravitas trap:

  • Smile more
  • Get curious. Ask more questions—and take the time to listen to the answers. Then ask follow-up questions.
  • Be transparent about your desire for dialogue—tell employees and team members that you value their input and seek honest debate. Publicly acknowledge people who do speak up.
  • Ask for help. It will engender an even deeper level of loyalty.

Virtual Gravitas (when you are not in the room)

A big booming voice has less impact on a Zoom meeting and other natural attributes such as height and stance and hand gestures similarly have little influence on how you are perceived when collaborating over a video conference.

But how you dress, your confidence, and your preparation all speak volumes. Think about the last time you met someone who really impressed you in a professional capacity and what was it that drew you to them? I am willing to bet it was their ability talk confidently about their subject matter. They most likely had a succinct and memorable message and that is the clue.

Courage, Communication, Composure, Authenticity, Presence and Respect all come through when you are thoroughly prepared.

Some additional resources that might assist you include:

There is always more to learn, do you have an opinion? If so please feel free to add your perspective below.

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