Gravitas – cultivate the X factor of leadership

Blog_Gravitas

If you feel a gap in the leadership shoes you wish to one day fill, then cultivating gravitas can help you grow into the space.

(An abridged version of this blog post originally appeared as an article I wrote for AFR.com: “Gravitas, the X factor of leadership, can be cultivated” 21 Apr 2016)

 by Tom Loncar

 Gravitas and leadership go hand in hand. Those with gravitas have an unforced and natural weightiness of presence that assures, engages and retains the attention of the people who look to them. If you suspect, or have been told, that you are lacking in gravitas or executive presence more broadly, there are ways to cultivate and grow your own variant – purposefully and authentically.

GRAVITAS – THE X FACTOR OF LEADERSHIP

We have all come across people who instantly convey gravitas. They impress in how they hold themselves, in how they listen, in what they say … and don’t say. There is calmness rather than histrionics. In such a person’s presence, we are assured and engaged.  In a study sponsored by companies that included American Express, Deutsche Bank and Ernst & Young, gravitas was found to be the dominant ‘pillar’ of executive presence, with 67 per cent of the 268 senior executives surveyed placing it at the forefront. Gravitas can give you that X factor; it is something worthy of striving for and mindfully maintaining in your leadership development.

WHAT IS IT?

Gravitas has a long history, originating among ancient Romans where it was one of the most highly regarded virtues.  It translates as: “Weight, seriousness and dignity, also importance, and connotes a certain substance or depth of personality”. In other words, gravitas is substance that is noticed, is positive, and makes an impression on others. The opposite?  It’s no accident that “s/he’s a lightweight” is a common description applied to those without it.

THE GOOD NEWS

If you feel you have a gravitas deficit, the good news is that you can develop it. However, it won’t happen overnight, and requires openness to feedback and experimentation. It needs careful cultivation as well as elimination of behaviours you may not even currently be aware of. Whether you are introverted or a more naturally ‘out there’ extrovert, there will be things to dial up – and down – as you start to develop your own authentic variant of gravitas.

IT’S NOT CHARISMA. IT’S MORE

“Charisma” is often added to the mix in discussions about gravitas and executive presence, though is quite distinct. It also has a long history, this time originating among ancient Greeks. Charisma is a “divinely conferred gift”. It is nature’s endowment of charm, rather than a cultivated partner in your leadership development. You can see buckets of charisma in many a golden-haired sportsman. However, charisma will only take you so far, should there be an absence of emotional intelligence and self-regulation. As we have seen among sportsmen, falls from once lofty charisma-laden heights can be harsh …

With gravitas, on the other hand, it’s more a question of nurture. It can be developed, if you are prepared to put in the time. Here are some ideas to work on.

GRAVITAS BUILDING FOUNDATIONS

1. Slow down, listen… and show it. People with gravitas are invariably outstanding listeners. They enable people to feel heard. This is a skill leaders such as Barack Obama and Richard Branson demonstrate effortlessly and authentically.

Consciously slowing down can help develop your capabilities in this area. In coaching developing leaders, I often see passion fused with hurriedness, which invariably extends to the way they communicate. This need for speed can often be interpreted as a lack of any, or only tokenistic connection. So in cultivating gravitas, drop back a gear. Connect as fully as the situation allows, be curious and be aware of the non verbal cues in front of you. If appropriate, go deeper in exploratory questions than you may otherwise be inclined to do, and enable the person you are with to feel heard.

2. Be generous in your recognition of others. Better listening helps instil the tenet that ‘it’s not all about me’ when it comes to gravitas. This extends to recognition of others. The best leaders I have known have effortlessly promoted wide collegiality, where contributions have been generously acknowledged. Being generous means sharing the spotlight more broadly, even when you feel you are due the majority of plaudits. You may feel you are giving something away, but you won’t be – it is gravitas that is being cultivated.

An excellent way to achieve this is by consciously changing your vocabulary from “I did…” to “we did…”, at every opportunity. “We” is noticed, and it inspires a virtuous loop of collegiality. “I” leaves you feeling momentarily important. And alone. This change might run counter to any Type A personality work culture you find yourself in, but cultivating gravitas is a long game, and now is a good time to start.

3. Grow and communicate your expertise. Leaders with gravitas often come across as the most knowledgeable person in the room. But they didn’t get there overnight. Focus more narrowly when you start developing expertise in areas that inspire you – learn ‘a lot about a little’, and seek to become a curator of the range of ideas in your domain. Dorie Clark from Duke University says: “If you’re a thoughtful curator of the best ideas in your field, even if you’re not developing them yourself, others will start turning to you for guidance.” A thoughtful curator will not just passively collect, they will also mesh and reinterpret the ideas they are exposed to. You can show you’re a thinker which will add a unique, authentic and valuable dimension to the foundation you are establishing.

4. Welcome the unpredictable with a pause. Gravitas meets stressful situations level-headedly, without vein-bulging histrionics and screaming. This is because gravitas also embodies high emotional intelligence. Leaders with this capacity recognise their own and other people’s emotions when stressful situations emerge, and use the cues they experience to guide their thinking and behaviour. They stay cool. They don’t get ‘hijacked’ by where an emotions-first autopilot will take them, and where over-the-top responses can leave them with a reaction they regret a mere few seconds later … and with a reputation diminished.

Unpredicted day-today ‘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 when potential conflict presents, as can the mindful use of a pause. As Mark Twain insightfully said: “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”  By bypassing immediate reactivity with a managed response, your gravitas foundations will be further boosted.

MANAGING THE CURSORY SIGNALS

Most of the ideas I’ve described so far require effort that starts from the inside. These are important and necessary foundations for gravitas. But in a competitive workplace there is also a more overt external dimension to consider. It may seem superficial, but how you cursorily present to others in fast-paced environments will influence your ‘gravitas cut-through’. Judgements are made unreasonably quickly. Here are some ideas that can help you better manage the signals you send.

1. Your look – simplify the interpretation. People jump to conclusions, all the time. This is efficient and helps to simplify a complex world. But it means that only a selective picture is perceived. Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman has called this “WYSIATI” – What You See Is All There Is. This is a human decision-making bias that, while efficient, means the conclusion that is jumped to first is the one that stays. So in the case of cultivating gravitas, your first-impression may be an ongoing impediment to people recognising the deeper package within.

While it may seem superficial, business attire is a vexed mash-up of associations. Every industry has its own fashion bandwidth, and it is important to calibrate accordingly. Note that this does not mean being a corporate fashion automaton – there is room for an authentic and distinctive you that does not detract from the gravitas you are cultivating. Gain a frank assessment from a trusted colleague or mentor who is sartorially savvy. Hold back any defensiveness and develop your look to one that is congruent with where you wish to go.

2. Body language and mannerisms. In addition to clothing, other signals may be apparent in any WYSIATI assessment of you. Mindful development of gravitas also requires enhanced awareness of what our body and physical movements tell others. For example, do we have a bunch of mannerisms, be they “umms” or tendencies to scratch certain body parts when nervous, that undermine how we present? These are often things we don’t notice but can unfortunately jump out immediately at others.

How we hold ourselves more generally can also help or hinder our leadership credentials. Our posture not only suggests things to others, but can also influence how we ourselves engage with both routine and more stressful workplace situations. Harvard Professor and social psychologist Amy Cuddy gave one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time on this topic entitled: “Your body language shapes who you are”. Cuddy’s research suggests that positive, expansive and open postures change your body chemistry – you feel more powerful, while also being perceived more positively by others. Consciously turning up the power in your body language, even when it may seem inauthentic to do so, can provide you with the impetus you need in coming across as a leader with gravitas. According to Cuddy: “Holding one’s body in ‘high-power’ poses for short time periods can summon an extra surge of power and sense of well-being when it’s needed”.

Gaining insights on what your body language is telling others is an area where an external view can be invaluable, as surprising gravitas-depleting truths are revealed. A trusted mentor or independent executive coach can provide you with a review of how you present, and which mannerisms may come out of your woodwork when placed under stress. There will be things to dial up – and down – as you seek to put your best foot forward.

FEELING INAUTHENTIC?  GOOD!

Because the cultivation of gravitas will stretch you, it is likely that you will feel inauthentic in some aspects of the journey. Such feelings are inevitable and will be a sign that you are stretching yourself in the right directions. INSEAD’s Professor Herminia Ibarra indicates that acute feelings of inauthenticity can be a sign of real leadership growth. This is because when we introduce new or challenging behaviours, we also move beyond our comfort zone. Ibarra writes: “Career advances require all of us to move way beyond our comfort zones… (however, these advances can) trigger a strong countervailing impulse to protect our identities. When we are unsure of ourselves or our ability to perform well or measure up in a new setting, we often retreat to familiar behaviours and styles”. Your cultivation of gravitas won’t get far if you stick with the same-old same-old. It is important to push through in order to realise any potential that may be found in the unfamiliar beyond.

HOW WILL THEY FEEL?

Experiences with good leaders are not forgotten. They leave people with a feeling that stays. In cultivating gravitas, be mindful of how the people you deal will feel during their interactions with you. Ultimately, they won’t remember the detail in PowerPoint deck you delivered, your clever dot points or your erudite executive summary. But they will remember how you made them feel. Work to this, and you are on your way to gravitas.

© Tom Loncar Executive Coaching 2016