Morgan Freeman has said he always knew he’d eventually be approached to play the role of God. It was apparently because of all the talk of gravitas in the media coverage of his career.
But what is gravitas? Are we born with it, or can it be taught? Do we need to speak in a magisterial baritone voice to have it?
Merriam-Webster defines gravitas as “high seriousness, as in a person’s bearing or in the treatment of a subject.” But that makes it sound like it’s never any fun.
The word itself comes from the word gravity, which refers to not only Isaac Newton’s law but a sense of weight, solemnity, and seriousness. The etymology of gravity, as you may suspect, is Latin –– gravis, which means “heavy.”
In Roman times, gravitas was thought to be an essential characteristic for leaders. It was what anyone in a position of power strived to achieve.
And although in common parlance, gravitas usually refers to a quality of solemn dignity –– as in a formal speech, for example. But it’s worth returning to the Roman conception of gravitas as intrinsic to leadership.
Gravity is a force of nature. Great leaders, too, are forces to be reckoned with. You recognize it when you encounter it. They just pull you in. You want to be around them. When they speak, you listen. They command presence in any room. They’re comfortable in their own skin.
How can you embody gravitas in your own leadership journey? I help leaders at every level break the mold of corporate leadership, discover their strengths, and deliver better results for their customers (and their teams).
In my own journey, I’ve discovered the qualities, habits, and traits a leader with gravitas needs to meet the challenges we all face –– and the ones we haven’t even imagined yet. Here are a few you can put into practice right away.
Nelson Mandela once said: “Do not judge me by my success. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up.”
Creativity and innovation are perpetual buzzwords in just about every business sector. But too often, we’re afraid to make mistakes. Failure isn’t a sign of weakness –– it’s an indicator of growth. It means we’re working outside of our comfort zones.
So, don’t be scared to use the word failure. Embrace it as an opportunity to learn. Use it as a positive step toward building resilience.
As a leader, you’re responsible for providing an environment in which people can feel safe and supported, to put them back on track, and make sure they learn from every experience, even the experiments that fail.
The same goes for you. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Cultivate a growth mindset –– a desire for constant learning. You’ll never have all the answers, so stay humble: Know what you know, and know what you don’t know.
Remember: Growth means evolution, open-mindedness, and self-awareness.
Someone with gravitas is never overly confident, aggressive, or phony. You can’t fake it, because it truly comes from within. It’s about being authentic and living life in line with your values.
A leader with gravitas eschews the “command and control” model that has typified most leadership models for decades. They don’t follow any leadership model that doesn’t resonate on a visceral level.
Gravitas in leadership means never being afraid to be yourself. It means knowing yourself and being brave enough to embrace your authentic leadership style.
That’s why we feel a sense of safety and security around people with gravitas. We know they’ve got our backs.
The best leaders aren’t experts in every area of their business. they build their teams to include a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints.
They know that one of the advantages of diversity and inclusion in the workplace is that it leads to diversity of thought. A leader with gravitas understands and nurtures this. Plus, they encourage those who are shy, introverted, or otherwise reluctant to share their ideas. Just because somebody is quiet doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be heard.
Gravitas requires collaboration, not only with your own teams but with stakeholders in every part of your business.
That’s why you shouldn’t silo anyone who works for you. Make sure everyone feels free to reach out and build relationships across departments or other subsets of your organization.
You should model this for others. Seek feedback. Embrace criticism. Growth mindset requires vulnerability. Feel free to say: You know what? That wasn’t the best decision I’ve ever made. Let’s regroup, and let’s do something different.
Then ask your team what they think. Listen to their ideas and incorporate them into your new approach.
Even though it’s less pervasive than it was a generation ago, we still encounter the misconception that leaders must be tough or intimidating to be effective.
Leaders with gravitas, however, are friendly and approachable. They lead with kindness. Being nice isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength. It’s a way of providing connection, security, and safety.
That’s backed up by data. Google’s large-scale, multi-year study code-named Project Aristotle found that the number-one trait high-performance teams have in common is psychological safety.
When you rule with an iron fist and people fear you, they won’t trust you. They won’t come to you when something goes wrong, so problems will get worse, and morale will deteriorate.
That doesn’t mean you should be a pushover. Great leaders are laser-focused on their vision. But they’re nice to be around. They model integrity for their teams. They build credibility with everyone in their organization –– and beyond.
Gravitas in leadership is more important now than ever before.
The way we work is changing. That was already happening before 2020, but the pandemic created paradigm shifts that will reverberate for years to come. Lockdown forced many of us (whether we liked it or not) into working from home. Moving forward, knowledge work might be done in a hybrid way, but it seems likely we’re probably never going back to a traditional office.
Every industry and every company will be different, but we’re all in this together. We all have the same dilemma: figuring out what the “new normal” looks like in the workplace.
As a leader, attracting and retaining talent in your organization is one of the most important things you do. And building the best team begins with creating a positive culture people want to be a part of. Your leadership model, as well as your vision and mission for your company, are part of your brand.
Today, a brand is about so much more than logos, slogans, and jingles. Every employee in the company represents the brand. Their behavior contributes to the way the brand is perceived. That’s because technology demands transparency: Even mundane workplace drama might be posted about on Glassdoor in seconds; any PR crisis is all over Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram just as quickly.
An authentic, forward-looking, responsive brand is particularly important to Gen Z. When they’re seeking employment, they want to understand the culture of an organization, and they won’t tolerate a “command and control” style workplace.
If we are to remain relevant, competitive (and hopefully innovative), we must embrace new ways of working. We need a new model of leadership –– one that reflects the vibrant, collaborative culture we want for our companies. It starts at the top –– with gravitas.
Jan Griffiths is the president and founder of Gravitas Detroit, which provides workshops, keynotes, the Accountability Lab, and the Finding Gravitas podcast to accelerate high performance through authentic leadership. A veteran executive in the automotive industry, Jan previously served as chief procurement officer for a $3 billion, tier-one global automotive supplier. As podcast host of Finding Gravitas, Jan explores what made these authentic leaders who they are today, understand what they consider to be their Gravitas, and what they do every day to practice great leadership.