Gravitas is bullsh*t

Gravitas is bullsh*t

Ever since reading Caroline Goyder’s excellent book ‘Gravitas’ I’ve been more than a little obsessed with this slippery term and why it seems to matter so much for confident communication in the workplace.

It seems I’m not the only woman who was told I needed to have more gravitas when I was starting out in my career but then given no guidance on how to obtain it. The fabulous Amy Kean recently shared her TEDx talk called ‘Gravitas is a Work of Fiction’ and references how often she was told she lacked the gravitas to take on senior client-facing roles. She’s now on a mission to ban the word gravitas as she believes it serves no purpose in this modern world. In short, she’s calling bullsh*t on gravitas. 

I sort of get why. If you look up the definition of gravitas it’s variously described as ‘weightiness’, ‘seriousness’, ‘importance of manner’. For me this conjures up images of grey-haired men, pontificating from some kind of podium with huge dollops of self-importance (can you pontificate without self-importance?!). It feels boring, dry, spectacularly dull, and far from being something that’s for me, let alone for someone decades younger and taking their first steps into their chosen industry. But if we look at the etymology of the word gravitas, we can start to understand its original meaning and how it’s changed throughout history. 

Gravitas is a Roman word and in ancient Rome gravitas was one of the virtues of being a good Roman citizen. What’s important to note is that while gravitas did require dignity, seriousness, influence and weight, a good Roman citizen also needed to be kind, to work hard, to have self-worth and perhaps most importantly, a sense of humour. So when did these more human elements – kindness, listening fully, humility, wit, passion and compassion – get lost in translation? 

It seems that Isaac Newton might have something to do with it. In 1687 he published his book The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in which he explained the universal force and named it gravity, after the word gravitas. This could be the moment that gravitas came to be thought of as weightier. But as Caroline Goyder reminds us in her book, gravity is just as up as it is down, and Newton’s Third Law of Motion describes the nature of opposing forces; for every push down there must be an equal thrust upwards. 

For me this is where it gets interesting. Gravitas requires this same balance of opposing forces. Your weightiness and seriousness need to be balanced with your ability to lighten up, to share what you know with passion, humility and wit. Yes, gravitas is the grounding force that gives you influence and authority, but it also has to have that opposing force upwards that gives you warmth, passion, compassion, approachability and likeability. Too down and you become deathly dull and dry, too ‘do as I say’ authoritarian. Too up and you become light as air, fluffy, insubstantial and people won’t listen to you because you’re not taken seriously. 

Gravitas isn’t about a flashy performance, a big booming voice or an imposing physical presence. It isn’t about taking on the mannerisms of others or copying the way someone else speaks. It’s about boosting your inner confidence and self-worth so that you can use what is unique to you to communicate with more influence and authority, without losing that natural warmth and authenticity that enables you to really connect with others. Because if you can find your gravitas and express it in a way that resonates with others, then your success comes from who you are

And that’s why, for me, gravitas still matters for confident communication in the workplace. Not that old-school, dull, weighty version of gravitas, but the authentic version that enables you to flex between communicating with influence and authority when it’s required of you, and back to warmth, empathy, passion and compassion when the situation requires. All of this while staying true to who you are and trusting that who you are is enough. 

So I don’t actually agree that we should be calling bullsh*t on gravitas. I believe that gravitas is for everybody. So perhaps rather than banning gravitas, it simply needs a re-brand to reclaim its original meaning. Any takers? 

If you or your team want to learn how to develop your own authentic (and human) gravitas, get in touch to find out how I can help.

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