Gravitas and the Executive Presence

5 minute read

When people talk about someone not “having what it takes” to be a leader, more often than not they are referring to executive presence. Not unlike a performer’s stage presence, executive presence is the ability to command and hold the attention of an audience, to own a stage space (whether on an actual stage, at a podium, or at the head of a boardroom [or even conference room] table), and to be compelling to listeners. The biggest difference between the stage presence of a popular musician and the executive presence of a 21st Century Leader is that the executive presence is intended to command respect from the audience, as opposed to the adoration of screaming fans.

Executive presence consists of three main concepts: communication, appearance, and gravitas. While communication style and appearance are frequently discussed in terms of their contributions to leadership qualities, gravitas is less often covered in leadership development circles. Perhaps this is because gravitas at times seems to be an elusive, almost ethereal, quality—either you have it, or you don’t. But our experience tells us this is not quite true; gravitas, once demystified and understood, can be cultivated and honed.

First of all, what is it? Gravitas is defined as “dignity, seriousness, or solemnity of manner.” Plainly spoken, it’s what many people may call authority. We prefer the word gravitas because it conveys a sense of nuance and finesse, as opposed to the bluntness of “authority,” which is one-dimensional and frequently wielded like a club.

Gravitas has several components, the first of which is confidence. Those who have gravitas have the confidence to maintain their vision and grace under pressure. They exhibit a brutal optimism—a positive and efficacious outlook that is unthreatened by obstacles, threats, and nay-sayers.

The next component of gravitas is decisiveness. Leaders with gravitas are able to make sound decisions and resolutely move forward to implement them. These professionals also are willing to push back when necessary—they can challenge the status quo and the prevailing ideology to advocate for their own vision, decisions, and professional assessment of the situation at hand.

Thirdly, those who have gravitas have integrity. They mean what they say, say what they mean, and make good on their commitments. They do these things even when it means they could jeopardize their position, even when they must speak truth to power, and even when the position they must take is not politically expedient.

Leaders with gravitas are emotionally intelligent. They skillfully manage their own and others’ emotions, and are able to do so with honesty, compassion, and humility. They use their emotional intelligence to build healthy, high-functioning, and productive teams. They understand the primacy of relationships in business and in life, in general.

As mentioned before, people with gravitas have vision. We respect those who have taken the time to think about their work, where it is presently, and where it could go in the future. Those who invest in crafting a creative and challenging vision of what the industry, company, division, or department could be also develop expertise and skills that colleagues and leadership alike can respect. Having the confidence and decisiveness to move in the direction of that vision is a large piece of what constitutes an executive’s gravitas.

The final component of gravitas is a positive reputation. This is the piece that takes time, and why we frequently associate the word gravitas with seasoned professionals. This is not to say that young professionals don’t or can’t have a sound reputation; however, it’s important to realize that actions taken today are the foundation of tomorrow’s public opinion of you as a leader.

Conversely, the behaviors that kill gravitas are those that diminish the items above. Obviously, not keeping one’s word, being unable to make decisions, having no vision of one’s own, and lacking confidence will strangle gravitas, but there are a few traps that enthusiastic leaders often fall into that are especially worth noting.

The first gravitas-killer is indiscretion. Engaging in sexual impropriety, or making jokes that are “off-color” (racially, politically, sexually, or religiously insensitive) are the two most frequent indiscretions that executives and other professionals commit. Regardless of your opinion of the term “politically correct,” to engage in behaviors that even some might consider “not politically correct” calls into question one’s judgement about what is appropriate and acceptable, thus compromising others’ trust and radically reducing gravitas.

Another pitfall is developing an inflated sense of self-worth. We once worked with a client whose company had hired a new Chief Compliance Officer When our client attended his first meeting with the new CCO and others in the division, the CCO met all dissent in the room by pounding his fist on the table and declaring, “I am the compliance BOSS around here! What I say goes!” Needless to say, his colleagues did not describe him as being a man of gravitas thereafter.

The last, and perhaps most egregious, insult to gravitas is bullying. Leaders who bully, belittle, abuse, or create hostile environments for their colleagues and team members do not have executive presence. Engaging in such behaviors reveals a serious lack of ethical understanding and reasoning; true leaders do not commit such acts, nor do they need to; they are perfectly capable of navigating a hierarchical infrastructure skillfully while appropriately leveraging key institutional power sources.

Though it may seem difficult to pinpoint the qualities that contribute gravitas, we all know it when we see it, and its importance in executive presence can’t be understated. Developing this quality is at the very heart of what we do to help professionals achieve, maintain, and deserve executive-level leadership, and it’s how we invest in ourselves and our clients. If you are interested in learning more about developing your own executive presence, we’d be glad to work with you to achieve your goals.

For this week: Who are your professional mentors and role models? What qualities of theirs do you most desire to emulate? Those qualities are your mentors’ distinct expression of gravitas; note how each individual is unique, and yet they all still have it. How, specifically, do you express these qualities in your own way? What words, actions, and beliefs do you use, and how could you enhance them?

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