“You are great at what you do Mike, but you need more gravitas if you want to get to the next level”.
Mike’s boss was clear. He thought Mike needed more gravitas to progress. It was at that moment (my ‘aha’ moment) I realised the importance of Mike’s predicament, especially as two other clients had asked me to work with them on the same thing.
It can be frustrating to be told you do not have it, particularly when it is unclear what is meant by ‘gravitas’ or ‘executive presence’. Both terms are used interchangeably, are shrouded in mystery, and are hard to define. Yet, curiously, we can all name someone who we believe has gravitas. But if we are pushed to explain what we mean by this, and what it is these people do or have, well frankly, it is hard to say!
This blog is written with these questions in mind and to help you navigate the mystique of ‘gravitas’ and how you can get some.
Shrinking in a corner, pressed into the wall; do they know I’m present, am I here at all?
(Lang Leav, Poet)
What is gravitas?
Though hard to define, when someone has gravitas people notice them. The way they walk, talk, move, sit or stand creates a lasting impression on those around them. Interestingly, we notice when they have it, as well as when they do not!
You know that annoying feeling when someone says what you said a few minutes ago (and you got no reaction when you said it) and yet now everyone thinks it is a great idea! Reflecting on the situation, what did they say or do differently that got more attention? Could it be that the person has more gravitas? If this is a likely explanation, it begs the questions: what is gravitas, can you grow it and, if so, how?
The Cambridge English dictionary defines it as “seriousness and importance of manner, causing feelings of respect and trust in others”.
Although some people seem to ooze gravitas effortlessly and naturally, it is important to appreciate that it is a skill, not necessarily an inborn trait. Like all skills, it can be learnt with a little know-how and practice.
Why is it important?
People with gravitas have impact. They are memorable, credible, convey confidence (without arrogance) and they exude integrity. They appear poised and calm. People notice when they enter the room. When they speak, people pay attention and listen. They are persuasive. They readily gain confidence and trust, can sway decisions, argue for resources, present compelling cases, ostensibly with ease and grace. All this allows them to access and seize opportunities.
Few delights can equal the mere presence of one whom we trust utterly.
How to grow your gravitas
- Be aware of the impact you have on others. Learn to radiate calmness and stillness when you are with people. This helps others to relax and be at their best in your presence. Be aware of the subtle messages you emit when you enter a room, sit at a table, or meet and greet people. How fidgety and frenetic are you? Do you have a welcoming smile?
Proactively seek feedback on how different people experience you. This is a key leadership action because we all have blind spots relating to how we are perceived by others. I once received feedback from several sources that I was scary! This trait does little to help build positive trusting relationships, so I worked on softening up a little to get the best from people.
- Assess how you sound to others. Is the tone of your voice audible, clear, calm, and slow? All these send out subtle clues that you are either anxious or relaxed. If you are not asking a deliberate question, avoid an upward intonation at the end of your sentences. This gives the impression that you are unsure about what you are saying. Pausing during the conversation is fine. It gives people (and you) time to think.
If you have the habit of using “fillers” such as er, um, or ah, learn to break the habit. Practice by recording yourself and playing it back.
- Know your topic and communicate it well. Prepare well by ensuring that you know and understand the relevant data relating to the topic to be discussed. Using a few simple words is much better than lots of complicated ones! People are not impressed by complicated language. Brevity and clarity are much more influential. When making a written statement we use a full stop at the end. When speaking, we should follow a similar rule by learning to stop speaking when we have made our point. Quality, not quantity, is the key to success.
- Be a great listener. Listen, listen more, and then listen some more. People with gravitas listen more than they speak. Always respond truthfully to questions and if you don’t know the answer, say so.
- Build positive relationships and networks – with stakeholders, peers, subordinates, and bosses. The most potent way to build positive relationships is to ask more questions than you answer. Listen more than you speak. It is well accepted that people who are good at networking build rapport by asking non-threatening, open, questions, rather than talking about themselves.
- Look the part. Think about the impression you want to leave behind. What subtle messages are you are sending to those around you?
Dress according to the culture and style of your organisation and the position you hold (or aspire to hold). This shows respect and conveys an appreciation of the responsibilities entrusted to you. It helps those around you feel comfortable and avoids distracting from the conversation. All of which increases your gravitas.
Having gravitas enhances your confidence and career. It strengthens your credibility and inspires confidence and trust in others. You will grab people’s attention quicker, and keep it.
If your gravitas needs a boost, work through the points above. Choose one (to begin with) and start practising it today. Build it into your daily work. Once you have done this, select another point to work on. You will soon be on your way to developing the mysterious yet powerful concept of gravitas.