The term gravitas is used admiringly about highly regarded leaders and often comes up in conversation about leadership development and senior level recruitment in the civil service. There’s no doubt the behaviours associated with gravitas are sought after by people wanting to be better leaders and by those aspiring to more senior positions. Across all sectors there’s a clear sense that developing or being perceived as having gravitas is associated with enhanced responsibility and progression to senior leadership and board roles.
As coaches, we each work with people who ask for support explicitly to improve their gravitas. For some, their search is shorthand for: “I want to be better and more effective in handling challenges at work”. Others are clear that, for them, it’s all about how to have greater influence in decision making or seeking support to apply for a new job where recruiters are looking for evidence of gravitas.
Sometimes a client may have had feedback, perhaps from a line manager or a senior colleague about “the need to improve their gravitas” or that a “lack of gravitas” is what’s holding them back. This can be unsettling. All too often such feedback is given without further explanation, leaving people uncertain about what is really meant and confused about their next steps. Even the word gravitas itself can meet a mixed reception suggesting, in some contexts, an uncomfortable feel of older, white male authority or an outmoded style of management.
We think much greater clarity is needed around the use of the term gravitas in personal and professional development as it should never be used, however unintentionally, to exclude people or hold them back.
So what exactly does it mean to have gravitas? It’s certainly a quality we can see in others, though appearances alone don’t tell the full story. It’s also something deeper – a combination of behaviours that lead us to infer the person we see is responsible, serious in their intent and with the capability to make good decisions. People with gravitas are anchored in a deeper purpose, they hold our attention, they listen to us, are emotionally intelligent and can "read the room". They know to their core who they are. We respect their integrity and authenticity even when we might take a diff erent perspective.
The differing interpretations of gravitas inspired us to research and produce our recent insight publication Leading with Grace: a fresh perspective on gravitas at work. We believe it is possible to reclaim gravitas as an entirely positive trait. Drawing on our experience as coaches, working with aspiring and established leaders across the private, public and third sectors, we have taken the best of gravitas and placed it in a modern, future-focused framework. In making transparent the positive behaviours underlying gravitas, we set out to make gravitas accessible and relevant to a wide and diverse range of 21st century leaders, and we invite anyone who wants to achieve more at work to integrate gravitas into their personal leadership style.
The GRACE framework
Your thoughts and actions are clearly driven by your guiding purpose. You demonstrate humility making the most of your abilities by working with others, unconcerned with how clever you look and focused on sustainable progress towards your guiding purpose.
You can remain calm with the self-control to retain grace under pressure. You are equally able to energise and inspire others to action. You are adaptable, both to the audience and to the moment, choosing how best to react, moving constructively towards your purpose.
You behave consistently with your values and your guiding purpose. You are driven by the need for self-development, continually learning and striving to better advance towards your goals. You are open to new ideas and new thinking.
You are able to mobilise thought and action in others through compelling communication skills. First and foremost, this means you listen to fully understand, rather than waiting to speak, or looking for weaknesses to exploit. You are courageous with what you say, but you remain sensitive; not alienating others, but bringing them with you.
There is no gravitas without expertise. You may derive gravitas through expert knowledge or you may derive it from marshalling the expertise of others. Either way, you are always curious and open to different opinions. You are comfortable enough in your own skin to run towards what you don’t yet know.
Deconstructing gravitas into core capabilities helps make it more accessible, hence the five interconnected elements that comprise the Leading with GRACE framework.
While we have separated the elements for clarity and focus, in the real world they are profoundly interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Focusing on any single element within GRACE could be helpful, but more useful may be to consider the elements in combination, each contributing to build the positive behaviours of a more modern approach to gravitas. In our publication we include questions for reflection and suggested actions – these are intended to offer possible next steps in the journey towards gravitas.
We are clear that the behaviours and mindsets associated with gravitas cannot be faked – it’s not just about what’s visible on the outside. The journey requires a focus on our internal world as well as on any external, visible impact. Our aim in creating and highlighting the five elements of the GRACE framework is to show that a firmer handshake, sharper clothing or a deeper voice alone should never be mistaken for gravitas. Rather, true gravitas invites a genuine focus on our internal world, in turn enabling greater collaboration with others, producing a more constructive impact on the world around us.
Gravitas, like wisdom, is one of those things you can’t really claim yourself to have, yet it is within our gift to work on the things that mean others will perceive it in us. The GRACE framework offers a way in to gravitas and the good news is it’s open to everyone, at any stage of their career, to engage with this journey.
Dame Una O’Brien, former permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care, and Pete Freeman are independent coaches working with the Praesta Partnership. Their report can be downloaded here
This article first appeared in the summer 2022 issue of Civil Service World. Read the full digital magazine here