7 Misconceptions of gravitas in organisations

By Tim Farish

Recently, we have been working on gravitas with several clients. Some of the common myths are that you have to be male, old, noisy, wizened, senior… or born with it. Not so!

Let me begin with some context. And then I’ll explain the misconceptions.

I have been coaching senior executives now for nearly 15 years and I’m starting to see a significant shift in what gravitas is. Whereas, once it stood for a certain behaviour and demeanour, instantly recognizable within most organisations, it appears to have moved on.

Does this mean that our common understanding, experience and seniority, are no longer ‘in fashion’ and outdated? Not entirely. It simply suggests that new, more modern values are starting to filter through the corporate system and being integrated into the organizational mindset. The traditional definition needs to be challenged, revised and updated.

The days of grey hair and deep voices appear behind us – filed firmly under ‘20th Century’. Or are they?

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

I should make it clear that I don’t claim to have empirical evidence for every point I make, but I have noticed a significant change in the mindset of senior executives I work with, and the people they lead.

So, what do we really mean by gravitas these days, and  – what exactly is it?  Most simply, in business terms, it is someone you take seriously.

And the more gravitas they display the more seriously you take them.
And let’s face it, there are certain people you take very seriously indeed. With a constantly changing workforce come changing values, so it’s no surprise that a shift in the traditional definition of ‘gravitas’ might be happening.
Here are seven of the most common misconceptions that I have come across:

Myth #1: You just know it when you first see it

There is no doubt that first impressions count for a lot – and there is plenty of research to back this up. However, how about a counter-view that says that those people who surprise you have even more impact? I call it the ‘jolt factor’ and I believe that people who ‘slow-burn’ when they impress have even more lasting power. Think about the last person who surprised you in this way: How do you view them now? That’s my point.

Myth #2: Age is vital

The most common misconception about gravitas is that it is occurs over the age of 50 and kicks in behind closed doors on the Executive floor. Not so. Some of the most seriously taken people are well under 35. Just take a look at how analysts and investors swoon at Google and Facebook AGMs.

One of the most serious combinations is ‘brains and chutzpah’, and these two companies have a healthy share of both in their early 20s!

Myth #3: Experience is essential

I won’t disagree that experience is definitely a major factor in being taken seriously. Of course it is. But it’s not essential. Attitude is more essential, for example someone who is prepared to stand up for themselves and argue a
point – even if it is unpopular. Over the last two years I have been delivering ‘Courageous Conversations’ – a global programme for a large energy company – and I have lost count how many participants cite ‘courage’ as being the most important factor when it comes to respecting and following others.

Myth #4: It matters most in the boardroom

Or does it? With our channels of communication becoming even more  fragmented and informal, what people say about your ‘brand’ lower
down the organization can be just as influential.  Junior people look up to leaders who ‘walk the talk’ more often than not. Additionally, gravitas can equally be shown lower down in an organization – and often is – it’s just typically called something else, like ‘impressive’ or ‘ambitious’.

Myth #5: You get more as you get more senior

Maybe, but not always. What is indisputable (and here there is plenty of research) is that people get far less flexible and adaptable after age 45. The smart executive keeps fresh by staying ‘relevant’ and this is more valued by today’s followers. And by relevant, I’m referring to being aware of the interests and concerns of their team.

Myth #6: The most vocal voice in the room

This is a relatively easy one to dismiss as most people feel resentment at the most vocal especially if that person does not listen well. “Saying less but meaning more” is a catchphrase for gravitas, and a timeless element. It is no co-incidence that one leading energy company recently introduced new corporate values, and ‘listening to the quietest voice in the room’ is seen as being best practice for their Execs.

Myth #7: Keep your distance – don’t get too intimate

Many experienced leaders will tell you that you do not need to be your team’s best friend to have their respect. I certainly agree with this. The smart ones will also tell you that you need to spend some private 1-1 time getting to know each one if you want them to go that extra mile for you.

So, what does all this mean? It suggests a few things. Firstly, that the hierarchy model of gravitas – respect and authority – is receding. There will always be organisations more hierarchical than others (some justifiably by design) but on the whole, most mid-junior employees feel that they now have a right to more participation and inclusion.

And finally, it implies that the information age and Generation Y are starting to grow up and assert themselves. The rate of change is accelerating fast and each generation is experiencing less time between the major paradigm shifts which affect our day-to-day working lives.

This makes those more comfortable with change more influential and those who are not, less so.

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