How to build your gravitas and ensure your strengths work for you

Cara McCarthy

Cara McCarthy

You will have noticed that over the past number of months I have invited a guest writer, Cara McCarthy, to share her thoughts on various leadership topics. I am delighted to now be able to share the news that Cara is joining me as a partner in The Padfield Partnership in contemplation of my eventual transition to retirement.

I have known Cara for several years (having met her at a training course to become certified in the Leadership Circle Profile tool), and admire her professionalism, skill, integrity and experience. We are excited about our partnership and enhancing the value we can bring.

Cara has spent more than 20 years working closely with senior leaders and their teams to support their development, performance and growth. Like me, she is an accredited and experienced one-to-one leadership coach and a systemic team coach, and she has a particular interest in the cultures that leaders create.

For many years, Cara headed up the OD, Culture, Learning & Talent function at a leading investment management firm. Since becoming independent, she has worked with a diverse client group from a range of organisations and sectors. Through our partnership, we can use our complementary skills and qualifications to enhance our value and the projects we work on – and look forward to working with you in this way!

We hope you enjoy this month’s topic.

Last month, we looked at the impact gravitas has on our leadership presence: How to build your gravitas and unlock transformational leadership.

We talked about gravitas as the balance between gravity, or the substance and ‘weight’ a person carries, and levity, a complementary element of humour and personality.

We explored Caroline Goyder’s gravitas equation from her book Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority, and considered ways to grow and sustain our personal gravitas:

Knowledge + purpose + passion ( anxiety) = Gravitas

This month, we explore the anxiety element and look at some tendencies that might unwittingly be diminishing our gravitas. We will explore how leaning in to our strengths will ensure we keep maximising our leadership presence.

How basic strategies for coping with anxiety can impair gravitas

The Leadership Circle Profile (LCP) describes three reactive sets of leadership behaviours – Complying, Controlling and Protecting – which have a negative effect on a leader’s impact. These reactive patterns are often learnt from childhood and are a way of managing one’s anxieties when we feel insecure or at risk of not getting our needs met. They give rise to self-limiting beliefs and assumptions and, as adults, we can all recognise some of these behaviours in how we respond in moments of vulnerability and anxiety.

Leading from any of these reactive patterns will have a negative impact on your gravitas and we’ll look at each in turn below. But it’s not all bad news! We will also unearth some of the gifts that lie at the heart of these patterns and look at how to engage more intentionally and skilfully with your strengths to enhance your gravitas and enrich your leadership effectiveness.

What are the reactive tendencies?

The three reactive tendencies correlate with negative patterns of behaviour that Caroline Goyder, promoting the work of family therapist Virginia Satir, terms ‘gremlins’ (see page 123 of her book ‘Gravitas’):

Complying (or the ‘placator’ gremlin): This tendency is displayed by a ‘people-pleaser’, someone who wants to socially belong and not rock the boat. The underlying desire to please is about managing the anxiety of social rejection and is learnt behaviour from a young age, whether it started with pleasing parents, teachers and/or friends. However, this behaviour can mean you struggle to voice your own needs or have your agendas met, delay decisions by seeking approval, are seen as passive and not someone to be taken seriously. These behaviours affect the substance part of the gravitas equation.

Protecting (the ‘computer’ gremlin): When we rely on the protecting strategies, we seek to manage our sense of anxiety by detaching and creating distance in order to think. This can cut us off from our ability to communicate and make us appear arrogant, critical and self-centred to others. We can come across as inattentive, dogmatic, rigid or mistrustful, all of which can diminish our influence. This cuts out the passion part of the gravitas equation.

Controlling (the ‘blamer’ gremlin): People who use controlling strategies might come across as autocratic and domineering, wanting to impose their will and agenda on others. They might be driven, be perfectionistic, refuse to accept blame and not listen to others’ viewpoints. The desire to control outcomes can be about managing feelings of insecurity or anxiety of, for example, failure or of being humiliated. But a controlling personality can damage connection by pushing people away, making them less motivated and more stressed, and diminishing mutual respect, a key ingredient to gravitas.

As we have seen, these patterns of behaviour are a way of easing a person’s anxiety and allowing them to hold on to a sense of security, identity and worth. As they are often cultivated early, they can be quite entrenched into a person’s psyche. To those around a leader, these behaviours can come across unfavourably and give rise to negative perceptions. But it’s not all bad! Read on for the good news…

How to channel reactive tendencies for the good

The good news is that these coping strategies help us learn many of the skills we need for life and within each we find strengths, gifts and even superpowers. Many of our leadership challenges arise when we overplay our strengths to compensate for feelings of stress and anxiety.

We can harness the power of self-awareness by reflecting on our triggers, identifying our strengths and learning to channel each of them to enhance, rather than diminish, our gravitas.

These changes take practice but will reap dividends for your gravitas.

Let’s explore some of the gifts of each reactive tendency and how, with awareness and skill, they can be balanced to enhance one’s gravitas.


Strength Balance this with…
Being empathetic – recognising and responding to the needs of others Knowing what you want and being honest about it; expressing it in a clear and assertive way
Being reliable Knowing that you can’t please everyone all of the time and being honest as to when you can’t
Going the extra mile Being clear about your boundaries and what you can and can’t do. This will ensure you don’t overpromise and underdeliver
Being easy to talk to and open to other people’s perspectives Knowing that your perspective has value and working on communicating it in an honest and sharing manner


Strength Balance this with…
Cutting through complexity and seeing issues that others might miss Avoiding overexplaining and having people switch off, while making sure to explain your ‘workings’
Remaining detached and observant, especially during times of high emotion Acknowledging your own emotions and empathising with others in order to be able to ‘take them’ with you
Taking a wider perspective or offering alternative ways to view situations Communicating these with care and passion, not just cold, hard logic


Strength Balance this with…
Pursuing excellence and continuous improvement Communicating an inspiring goal and vision rather than focusing on avoiding mistakes or failure
Influencing others with passion and ambition Helping them to connect with the bigger picture; engaging and inspiring them to embrace the vision
Voicing your opinion and being willing to engage with potential conflict or challenge Avoiding blaming language and creating opportunities for others to be heard
Taking charge and getting stuck into action Taking the time to understand what is important to others and where the common interests lie, to help build energy for sustainable momentum

Gravitas comes from learning to be ourselves with an appropriate balance of substance and lightness. It comes from knowing ourselves well enough to understand our anxiety triggers and how to manage our coping behaviours, and from having a strong sense of purpose and an ability to communicate our message with knowledge and passion.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What patterns of behaviour might chip away at your gravitas?
  • What self-limiting beliefs are beneath these? Are there consistent triggers for when they rear themselves?
  • What steps could you take to increase your understanding of what may be happening and to manage any anxiety?

If you feel that any of this article resonates and you would like to work on breaking the cycle of self-limiting beliefs or negative patterns of behaviour, you could consider coaching. Rose and Cara are both Leadership Circle Profile-accredited coaches who work with many leaders to support their effectiveness and development. Contact us here to find out more.

Try this

Listen to Caroline Goyder speaking about the importance of having gravitas in a business environment:

Further reading

You might consider reading our related articles:

Next month

Next month, the topic is play.