That’s how an executive I’m about to coach was described to me, just last week. A Senior Vice President with a highly influential commercial role in a global enterprise.
I have heard the word gravitas often in my 20 years of coaching top executives. Data from Oxford Languages shows that the use of the word has increased exponentially since 2000. I assure you, I’m not to blame.
Google Ngram displays a graph showing how particular phrases have occurred in a corpus of books.
What the heck is gravitas, you ask? Why should you want it? How do you get yourself some? And is there such a thing as gravitas training?
When I hear gravitas I think of the actor Tom Selleck doing his Reverse Mortgage commercials. The low, gravelly voice of authority. “You can trust me.” “I have your back.”
The latin origin of gravitas is gravis = serious. Oxford ascribes the following synonyms to the word: dignity, seriousness, or solemnity of manner.
Eeek. I want to run when I hear those connotations. Couple this with the fact that I never get asked to coach a woman on having more gravitas – I coach a lot of women executives – and I wonder: Is gravitas code for an antiquated macho playbook? “How to be old, stuffy, boring and project that you’re in charge?” Are we just talking about a clichéd and outdated projection of male authority?
Here’s a modern take on gravitas that feels more comfortable. When you speak, people take you seriously. They trust you. You speak with an easy, earned authority. Others listen.
Your authority just IS.
Regardless of gender. Regardless of age.
You HAVE it.
Here’s the deal: There isn’t a little gravitas pill or gravitas training you can take. There is no way that you will suddenly have more wisdom than you actually have. If you have to “work for gravitas” you’re already screwed.
Gravitas is the faith you have in your unforced authority. Instead of training to flaunt your gravitas, consider the following behaviors that get in the way of others seeing your natural authority. Think of these as your MUST-AVOID behaviors:
1. Don’t over-talk.
Individuals with gravitas trust their authority. They trust they know what they’re talking about. They trust that this knowledge is evident to others. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you don’t have gravitas. All the talk in the world will not hide this fact. If you do know what you’re talking about, have faith that you do. Offer evidence, yes. Offer information, yes. But resist the temptation to over-work it. Individuals with gravitas don’t over-work anything.
Critical belief: I know what I am talking about. I trust that this is self-evident.
2. Don’t strain your voice.
When we don’t trust our authority, we’re wont to strain. This strain will show up in our voices. We suddenly become high-pitched when we normally aren’t. We resort to vocal fry – the annoying habit of ending a sentence with an upward lilt of the voice instead of a definitive close. Declarative statements start to sound like question marks. Our fears and our anxieties quite literally change the way we talk and sound. They make our voices work harder than they need to. This effort undercuts any gravitas we possess.
Critical belief: My voice easily and effortlessly commands the room (or Zoom screen) and draws people’s attention to me.
3. Don’t lead with your emotions. Lead with your ideas.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Be passionate when you advocate for a project, an assignment, or your team. Whenever you lead with your passion, however, your passion runs danger of both upstaging and diminishing your idea. Put your passion in service of your idea. In the end, the relationship between an idea and your passion for that idea is symbiotic. With less experienced leaders, passion will interfere with the clarity of an idea. Folks with gravitas get the balance of this relationship right.
Critical belief: I put my passions in service of the great ideas I have. I harness these passions well.
4. Don’t bring your little child to the boardroom.
This is the psychological part of gravitas. There’s a little child in all of us. This little child has the capacity to be curious and see the world with wide-eyed wonder. Beautiful. There is, however, also the part of this child that wants to desperately be accepted by the grown-ups at the table. Wants their love, their approval. We’re way too cool to admit that this little child shows up with us when we sit in the boardroom. I mean, we know better than that, right? But for most of us, that child is right there with us, at all times. The more it runs the show, the less gravitas of any sort we have,
Critical belief: I am an adult who has a seat at the table. I show up as the adult and not the little child who is asking for permission.
You have my unequivocal blessing to not worry about training to develop gravitas. Hallelujah. Training for gravitas is not possible. Because you can’t force gravitas or “make it be.” Focus instead on the habits that get in your way. They are the habits that diminish or hide the inherent authority that you have. They prevent me from seeing your gravitas.
There is no gravitas without faith in what you know.
If you have that faith, get out of the way.
Let your gravitas BE.