Gravitas: learned skill or innate quality?

Kevin Lawrence, managing director of Odyssey Group tells Talk Business about how gravitas could be learnt by business leaders, improving communication and presentation skills.


Over the last few years a number of books have been published arguing that gravitas is a skill: something that can be learned. In her book of 2014, Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority, the voice coach Caroline Goyder says, ‘We can all have gravitas when we speak’. The communications coach, Antoinette Dale Henderson, whose book Leading with Gravitas was published in February, agrees. She argues that gravitas is a combination of self-awareness, expertise and authority, coupled with effective self-presentation. It is, she says, a quality that has historically been associated with venerable old men, but which is accessible to anyone, regardless of age, ethnicity or gender.

It is certainly true that gravitas is not dependent on age, ethnicity or gender. It is harder, though, to argue that anyone can achieve gravitas. That’s because it’s a quality that requires both learned skills and traits deeply rooted in temperament and outlook. Goyder argues, ‘If you have a zone of real expertise and learn to express it with authority, then gravitas is within your grasp.’ The key word here is ‘if’. Gravitas does not simply derive from the way you express yourself. It is based on three separate qualities:

  1. Genuine expertise

Expertise is born of talent, practice and experience. It takes time. It comes from learning what other people have to offer on a given subject, also from your own independent thought. The expertise gives what you have to say its weight.

  1. The ability to communicate with authority

The word gravity derives from the word gravitas: and someone who possesses gravitas has a gravitational pull. People are drawn to them. They listen to what they have to say. This happens both because what they say is worth listening to – it is rooted in genuine expertise – and because they have learned how to present themselves effectively. They stand and speak confidently and well.

  1. The desire to shoulder responsibility without ego

Of all the components of gravitas, this is the one that is hardest to learn. Gravitas does not just mean ‘weight’ and ‘substance’: it also means someone who is able to sustain the weight of responsibility: both to a given task and to others who are affected by the outcome of that task. To be capable of gravitas, a leader needs the strength of mind to accept and honour their responsibilities. They don’t take on responsibility to further themselves, or to fuel their ego, but because they believe in what needs to be done. Unpick this a little further and it becomes clear that this trait rests on other attributes, which cannot all be learned easily: trustworthiness; clarity of vision; self-awareness and empathy.

Gravitas is not charisma. Those with charisma attract people to them. Those with gravitas evoke the sense that they can be relied upon to be knowledgeable, fair and responsible. Gravitas is a trait of leadership. Not everyone can be a leader and not everyone can possess gravitas. But organisations need to recognise the individuals who have the innate quality of gravitas – the desire to shoulder responsibility without ego. Those are the individuals who should receive training in self-presentation and who should be given the opportunities to extend their expertise. They are your leadership pipeline. Target them, rather than trying to endow others with a gravitas that they may never possess.