What is gravitas, and how do we get more of it?
You don't have to be old, white and male to have gravitas. It is a way of being and you can get more of it by getting to know more about yourself.
I once received a job offer, contingent on the CEO’s nod of approval. We had a brief conversation after which she said “Welcome. It’ll be good to have someone with gravitas on the team”.
I was in my early 40s and assumed she meant “You are much older than the rest of the team” (which I was) because like most people I associated gravitas with older, professional (mostly male) leaders. I didn’t feel very good about this.
We owe the word gravitas to Latin, in which it means “weight, heaviness” and was always attributed to men. It was then borrowed by the French to denote the physical reaction of “moving towards” (gravity). So embodied gravitas has come to mean possessing a depth of personality traits such as reliability, trustworthiness and innate wisdom that draws and attracts people. It’s not surprising, then, that over time it has become associated with age, and the experience we assume comes with this.
Where does this leave young professionals, particularly those who are below-the-board or otherwise heading towards leadership roles? If a lack of gravitas is perceived by others, or by themselves, as a blockage to career advancement, how can they acquire it? And if they happen to be a woman, do they have to work harder or wait longer?
The good news is that, contrary to the social structures of ancient Rome, gravitas is not something that is in the gift of the birthday gods. It may not be something we are born with, but it is certainly something we can cultivate at any age and it is quite definitely not gender specific (think Malala Yousafzai).
The bad news is that real gravitas is not something that can be trained in, for example as part of a one-size-fits-all course. Although it may be associated unconsciously with certain techniques and behaviors, such as the ability to stay calm under pressure, if gravitas is to be experienced by others as authentic, it needs to be integrated into an individual’s way of being, not just their way of acting.
So, if gravitas comes from the inside, what steps can we take to internalize and then project this elusive leadership quality? And how can we demonstrate gravitas in important situations, such as a team or project meeting?
We can start with cultivating our awareness of self, and of others. Being attuned to others in the room is more important than making our mark on the room. Standing out in the crowd begins with standing in with the crowd, using empathy to appreciate different points of view and recognizing that the contribution of others has equal relevance to our own. There is nothing that signals a lack of gravitas more than someone who is sitting on the edge of their seat visibly itching to make their contribution, even if this means talking over someone else.
How we make that contribution also lends gravitas. Using reflection demonstrates that you have listened like it matters and have respect for others in the room. Taking time to pause and regain focus if this is necessary keeps what we have to say relevant and worth listening to. It is also a useful way to gradually conquer verbal habits, such as constantly saying “like” or “you know” or using upward inflections (someone I know used to constantly ask “Am I making sense?”).
When making assertions or asking questions try to preface these with the more constructive “what?” or “how?” and not “why?”. This shows constructive thought patterns and is more likely to move the discussion on.
If you find yourself struggling to contribute at all, don’t give into the fear of not being good enough. Remember there is a reason why you have a place at the table. Notice your fear but do your best to ‘park it’ and move on. Staying connected with others in the room by maintaining eye contact and listening carefully to what everyone else has to say, can help with this.
We project gravitas with our bodies as much as we do with our words, and fiddling with your phone, constantly adjusting position in your seat or worse still shrinking back in your seat as if you would rather not be there, all compromise gravitas. Show you are present in the room by leaving gadgets outside it, or in your bag. Observe the body language of others, particularly if you believe they have gravitas, and then mirror this.
Gravitas isn’t about being someone that you are not, it is about recognising and understanding your internal strengths and building on these. You can do this with the help of a coach, but if you practice some of the behaviours mentioned above you will already be taking a big step towards getting your gravitas groove on. And you don’t even need to hit a milestone birthday to make a start.