Gravitas leadership, discovering this little known but very important quality

30 May 2018
Gravitas leadership, discovering this little known but very important quality

What is gravitas?  Why is it important for a leader? This newsletter was triggered by an exchange with one of my clients when we were both trying to define this quality which is so important in today’s leadership.

In this article we will discuss gravitas in the professional field, but the same could apply to personal life. As parents or when we organize an outing with friends, gravitas enables us to instill serenity into ourselves and into others.


Let’s begin by defining what gravitas is NOT

I will define what gravitas is not as I intend to describe it in this article.

- it is not fake seriousness to enhance our image or distance ourselves from other people

- it is not the feeling of superiority typical of the Roman “pater familias” who ruled over his family

- it has nothing to do with age or sex. I have seen children gifted with gravitas leadership!


Let’s try to define what it is

Gravitas is the result of an alignment of identity, actions, emotions and feelings, words, body language.

Some people are at peace with themselves because they know themselves thoroughly and are perfectly aware of their strengths and weaknesses.  Consequently, they stop trying to prove to others who they are or what they do, but they act because they know who they are.

Gravitas is the quality that enables us to understand whether a certain person is worthy of trust and respect. It is not a fleeting quality.  Once you have acquired it you keep it for life. Usually leaders who have this quality have the ability to motivate their co-workers to reach a goal, they know how to steer and focus a team’s energy, but they also know how to infuse serenity by remaining calm in moments of turmoil.  An appropriate image is the bamboo that bends but does not break.

Gravitas is expressed by being rather than by doing because it demands self-awareness at a given time.  In order for a leadership to be effective, a leader who is endowed with gravitas will also admit that he is wrong when he realizes that he has not been coherent with himself and with others and will acknowledge it without losing his authority, but on the contrary increasing it.

A gravitas endowed leader does not need to be right or to have the best ideas, because he knows that his role is helping others to express their full potential. His passion for his work or the cause that he espouses enables him to display his best qualities.


When gravitas is lacking…

Adolescents are an example: they fuss or struggle to understand who they really are.  Another example can be found in people who strive to conform to a certain environment by downplaying their own personality or who look for a job that they are not fit for. I have also met people who have little gravitas because of stress, which makes them irritable and leads them to send incoherent messages.

Have you ever felt exhausted at the end of a day, yet with the sensation of having worked hard from morn till night without feeling any satisfaction?  Zapping on different subjects, the rhythm and quantity of information we must assimilate often lead us to feel “disconnected” from ourselves.

Gravitas and manipulation don’t go well together because without honesty we cannot express ourselves fully. Manipulation is not compatible with gravitas, because gravitas is inherent in being, not doing.


Why are we concerned with gravitas and why is it useful in today’s world?

In a world where nothing is certain, it is important to have leaders who steer the ship safely and who know how to motivate their co-workers in spite of relentless change, while at the same time instilling feelings of stability and safety. It is not an easy task.  In fact, when facing changes of strategy, leaders sometimes become bossy, deluding themselves into believing that they control the situation, or else they infuse stress without even realizing it, thus destabilizing their co-workers and sometimes the entire company.  Or else they think they should listen to their co-workers, but don’t know how to take decisions or implement the decisions that have been taken. I have noticed that senior executives are not always aware of the impact of their actions or inaction, of their words or silence, on the whole company.  It is true that the higher a person climbs within a company, the fewer are his/her possibilities of receiving feedback from others, thereby increasing his/her lack of self-awareness.


How does one acquire gravitas?

Aye, there’s the rub, because gravitas is not something you can acquire any day. It is the result of a constant lifelong effort.  The minute we stop working on ourselves, our self-awareness may risk decreasing.  But where do we start?

My suggestion is that we start by asking our co-workers to give us an honest feedback.  I am not referring to a 360° questionnaire, but rather to a person to person verbal feedback.  I strongly urge you to ask co-workers and some good friends.  Take the feedback as it comes without answering right away; answering means that you haven’t fully listened to it.  Write it down as you listen and then reread it calmly trying to understand the most important points.

I urge you to focus your attention on a feature of your personality that you would like to develop, one feature only, because only by concentrating on it will you obtain positive results.


An example

Over the past year I have concentrated on one of my main shortcomings, impulsiveness and reactivity. Sometimes it is better to make a thorough appraisal of the situation and then act calmly and thoughtfully, instead of taking immediate action without having fully assessed the situation. I began to weigh my reactions when faced with stressful and conflicting situations in order to gain awareness of the mechanisms that triggered my impulsiveness.  After a long process of self-awareness, I learned to observe myself when confronted with certain situations. I noticed that merely by observing myself I succeeded in becoming less reactive. Subsequently I spent more time thinking, especially when faced with complex situations.  Sometimes I wrote down and organized my ideas. I have also learned to take time to make contact with my body through breathing and re-centering exercises.

Now, a year later, it is easier for me to notice when the impulsiveness alarm goes off.  I realize that whenever restraint is required I manage to keep calm, thus helping others to take well thought out decisions. Working on impulsiveness has had a positive effect both on my work and in my personal and family life.  In fact, it succeeded well beyond my expectations: now I am more self-assured, even in difficult circumstances. I have also noticed that others listen to me more attentively, since they realize that my ideas are well thought out.  Finally, I feel freer and lighter, whereas before I was overwhelmed by strong immediate feelings.  I have learned to let go, I spend time thinking and I don’t feel captive of emotions as I did before.


A summary of the different steps towards acquiring better self-awareness and hence improved gravitas

1. Ask for co-workers’ feedback and take it into account

2. Choose an improvement line that you wish to concentrate on

3. Do some retrospective self-assessment when faced with a risky situation

4. Gradually observe yourself during the situation

5. Be mindful of your body language and help yourself through breathing

6. Think of a more appropriate way of dealing with a situation even though it may require a taxing change.


After six months start looking for the result of the increased focus on yourself and on others and continue on the same path until you notice that change is stabilized.

And then choose another field that needs assessment and evolution: the game is never over!

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