Cultivate gravitas

Careers  Leadership
15 February, 2021

Gravitas can make or break careers. Fortunately, this elusive, hard-to-define quality can be developed.

Do people pause and pay attention when you speak? Is your opinion sought and trusted by team members, peers and clients? Do you bring a sense of calm and stability into heated situations?

Gravitas is closely associated with career advancement and successful leadership. Based on popular perception, you might assume that it’s one of those ‘either you have it or you don’t’ qualities. Fortunately, that’s not true. Research shows us that gravitas can be developed – a worthwhile endeavour for current leaders who want to raise their game, as well as those who aspire to become leaders in the future. So, this week, my message focuses on gravitas – what it is, why it is important and how you can cultivate it.

Manfred Kets De Vries, professor of leadership development at INSEAD, notes that it’s hard to pin down exactly what people mean when they say ‘gravitas’. He goes back to the roots of the word to bring more clarity:

The word itself derives from the Latin gravitas, meaning weight, and from gravis heavy, suggesting that people who display gravitas are grounded, possess sound judgment and are able to deal with “weighty” issues. No wonder that for the ancient Romans, it was rated among the highest of the fifteen virtues needed to attain a reputable position in society. 

A career-defining quality

Gravitas amplifies your voice and lends weight to your words – within your team, organisation and broader network. It conveys credibility, making you more persuasive and widening your sphere of influence. In her article for Harvard Business Review, Rebecca Newton offers the following definition of professional gravitas:

Having gravitas at work means you are taken seriously, your contributions are considered important, and you are trusted and respected.

In a study by the Center for Talent Innovation, gravitas emerged as the central pillar of executive presence. A whopping 67 percent of senior executives put it at the top of their list, with the following components included:

  • Exuding confidence and grace under fire
  • Speaking truth to power
  • Demonstrating EQ
  • Radiating vision, charisma

With gravitas comes a sense of dignity as well as a seriousness of purpose – qualities that we tend to associate with great leaders. Think of it as an ‘X factor’ that can galvanise your career and propel you up the career ladder.

The various facets of gravitas

Let’s address a couple of important questions. Does cultivating gravitas mean putting up a front that masks your real personality? Do you have to compromise on your values and preferred working style in order to be taken seriously and respected?

The reason for these questions is that gravitas is usually associated with a particular set of behaviours. Newton, who is an organisational psychologist at the London School of Economics, calls this ‘surface gravitas’:

Generally this involves posturing, dominance, or self-importance that are meant to charm or subdue. Taken to an extreme these behaviors can be counterproductive, eroding your relationships and influence, and even contributing to fear-based cultures that are anathema to innovation.

Building surface gravitas focuses entirely on outward appearance, usually at the cost of a person’s authenticity and wellbeing. As Newton notes, most professionals realise this instinctively. They want to be respected and valued, but not if it means hiding their real selves. If we dig a little deeper, however, we can find a more meaningful form of gravitas that aligns with who we are – what Newton calls ‘authentic gravitas’.

De Vries, meanwhile, says that inner solidity and outward appearance work together to create gravitas – a blend of substance and style. Internal factors include things like self-awareness, emotional intelligence and knowledge, while external factors relate to how we present ourselves to others – the way in which we act, speak and look. As he observes: 

In many ways gravitas is very much a perception issue. It is a function of influence, how others assess our competence and importance. It is a function of influence, how others assess our competence and importance. This assessment involves three factors: how we are perceived in acting, how we are perceived in speaking, and how we are perceived in looking.

Building authentic gravitas

By blending a generous amount of substance with a dash of style, you can develop gravitas while still remaining true to yourself. This prized quality will enable you to inspire respect, connect with people effectively and exercise greater influence at the workplace. Use these eight steps to map your route to gravitas:

1. Build self-awareness.

Self-knowledge lays the foundation for poise and self-assurance. Without it, any pursuit of gravitas remains woefully superficial. As De Vries puts it:

To radiate real gravitas we…need to know what we are all about; to recognise our abilities, and our self-worth. Without this self-awareness, and by extension self- possession, we will never be able to master our passions; to discover the power within ourselves.

It’s important to understand that self-awareness is a process, rather than a one-time project. You can build this habit by creating regular slots in your schedule for practices like mindfulness and reflection. Remember, even a few minutes of sitting with oneself can greatly enhance self-awareness.

2. Choose courage.

The lack of self-belief could stop your gravitas journey even before it begins – if you let it, that is. As Newton explains:

Because people often assume confidence is a critical aspect of gravitas, it’s usually a big barrier for those who feel they lack it – since they believe they must pretend to get it. What’s more, telling yourself you don’t have enough confidence can be a vicious cycle, with that negative self-talk decreasing your confidence further.

Newton’s research shows that professionals who are considered by others to have gravitas don’t always feel confident. They have their fair share of fears and doubts. The difference is that they acknowledge these vulnerabilities and then make an intentional choice to act courageously. The self-awareness exercises mentioned above will help you accept your (perfectly natural) fears, while positive self-talk can help you grow in courage.

3. Commit to integrity.

Moral integrity gives your gravitas a backbone. Not only is it one of the strongest predictors of leadership effectiveness but it also increases courageousness. Newton elaborates: 

As we commit to integrity, we ignite our ability to speak up when it’s not comfortable and to share our views that might be different and therefore risky. In doing so, we increase the extent to which we positively stand out at work, and we can do so with authenticity.

4. Increase your knowledge.

In this age of instant soundbites and social media, there is a temptation to voice opinions on anything and everything – regardless of how much one actually knows about the subject. In order for your words to carry weight, they must also carry value. So, immerse yourself in the topics you want to talk about, be it your professional domain or other subject areas where you want to hold you own. Expand your knowledge base, keep up with the latest thinking and apply your learning by mapping out your own views.

5. Slow down and listen.

While gravitas is partly created by the quality of your words, it is also evoked by the quality of your silence. Leaders with gravitas tend to be excellent listeners: they have the ability to slow down during personal interactions, give other people their full attention and respond with insightful questions. Being able to connect with people in this way creates a feeling of grounded-ness and trust.

6. Broaden the conversation.

Another way to deepen connections and increase your influence is to carve out time for meaningful conversations with co-workers and clients. As Newton explains: 

It’s easy to rush from meeting to meeting, and agenda to agenda (especially when working virtually). The danger is that we miss what’s going on with the people we’re working with. What matters most to them right now? What are they excited about? What opportunities do they see? What are they concerned about? Choosing curiosity over efficiency gives you stronger connections and gives you information you can use to have a bigger impact.

7. Practice composure in crisis.

Those who navigate turbulence with grace can ease the fears of people around them and inspire confidence. In his Financial Review piece, Tom Loncar recommends practicing this skill when faced with everyday hiccups: 

Unpredicted day-to-day “emergencies” represent a good place to enhance your emotional intelligence. Recognise the emotions you see in yourself and others when such situations present – and don’t go where your autopilot instinctively wishes to take you. Tuning in to your breathing can be a useful ally, as can the mindful use of a pause.

So, the next time an unexpected obstacle rears its head, resist the temptation to react instantly with anger, frustration or panic. Instead, take a deep breath, find your zen, and work out a thoughtful response.

8. Assess your visual image.

How you present yourself will not create gravitas, but it can certainly enhance it. The fact is, visual impressions matter. Maybe they shouldn’t – but they do, because human beings are hardwired to jump to conclusions. Does your appearance convey the right message, one that’s aligned with your inner values as well as your professional aspirations? Loncar offers some useful advice: 

Your first impression might be an ongoing impediment to people recognising the deeper package within. Every industry has its own fashion bandwidth, and it is important to calibrate accordingly. There is room for an authentic and distinctive look that does not detract from the gravitas you are cultivating. Gain a frank assessment from a trusted colleague or mentor who is sartorially savvy.

Body language is another key component of your visual presence. Focus on developing good posture and an open stance to signal positivity, self-assuredness and a willingness to listen to other people.

Cultivating gravitas that springs from your true self is transformative. It can clear your path to achieving long-held dreams or open new doors that you didn’t even know existed. Authentic gravitas elevates your executive presence and bolsters your credibility – not just for one interview or meeting, but through the course of your entire career.


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