'Gravitas' in Leadership: What It Is, Why It Matters and How to Get It

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U.S. Army Master Sgt. Andre Bland instructs a group of Clemson University Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadets during an “actions on the objective” field exercise. (U.S. Army/Ken Scar)

You may have heard that an important part of leadership presence in the civilian sector is having “gravitas.” But what is gravitas and why is it important to your ability to lead, influence and drive teams?

Merriam-Webster defines gravitas as “high seriousness (as in a person's bearing or in the treatment of a subject).” Taking this further, gravitas means to have an expertise over a topic and the ability to speak confidently about your expertise in a way that others notice and are influenced. 

Someone with gravitas is said to be self-assured, relaxed, approachable and highly informed on their subject. They don’t “wing it,” and others rely on them for their expertise. When someone with gravitas enters the room, others notice and want to be near them. Someone with gravitas commands respect, is seen as credible and influential, and is often sought after.

Why Does Gravitas Matter?

As people today look for leaders and influencers, gravitas has grown in importance. Many companies look to hire individuals who carry themselves with an air of confidence, dignity and relatability. They want employees who are knowledgeable in their skills and can relate their experience to present and future opportunities.

Team members often want to be led by people who possess gravitas. This kind of leader can articulate a vision, show the team how the plan will work, is open to the input of others and will help ensure everyone is aligned to achieve the team’s goals successfully. Gravitas gives them the credibility to have their direction and insight adopted and displays the calm demeanor often needed to help everyone flourish.

What if You Don’t Have Gravitas?

A natural question that arises when I teach executive and leadership presence is, “What if I don’t naturally have gravitas? Can I get it?” The answer is, “In most cases, yes.”

To develop gravitas, you’ll focus on the external and internal characteristics of this trait:

  • Externally, you’ll want to ensure your posture and body language show confidence, openness and calm. If you’re anxious, hurried or hunched over in insecurity, you won’t display gravitas. Instead, stand tall and relaxed, with your shoulders rolled back, making good eye contact and using hand gestures appropriately. Even on a phone call or video meeting, you can display gravitas. Avoid rushing to answer questions and interrupting others. Be sure to speak in a calm, assured and professional manner. And be sure you do speak. 

If others on the call or in the meeting are being overbearing, find a way to insert your voice to be heard. This may feel awkward the first few times you do it, but when you consistently offer insights of which you are knowledgeable and well-versed, and when you display a degree of charm and polish, you’ll begin establishing your external qualities of gravitas.  

  • Internally, gravitas necessitates you have a good understanding of who you are, where your value to others lies and where you’re headed. Without a clear sense of self and your purpose, it’s hard to display gravitas to others. Take the time to understand who you are and why you’re here; self-awareness is a healthy and valuable process to undertake as you navigate the civilian sector. Stay curious. Be open to new ideas, new visions and the expertise of others. Your curiosity does not diminish your own value, gravitas or knowledge. In fact, being inquisitive and interested in others is an endearing quality that many great leaders possess.

Gravitas is hard to attain if you’re not motivated or don’t use all the levers available. Trying to display gravitas on social media, for example, but not living that way in your in-person interactions won’t earn you the respect, credibility and influence of someone who is consistently the same person in all interactions.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty” (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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