Unlock transformational leadership

How to build your gravitas and unlock transformational leadership

This month, Cara McCarthy explores what gravitas is, how anyone can develop it and why it is the key to unlocking your true leadership potential.

What is gravitas and what does it look like?

Have you ever met someone and immediately felt impressed by their presence or inspired by their confidence? Perhaps they spoke with authority, quietly commanded your respect or effortlessly mobilised others to work with them towards a shared goal?

What you were perceiving was gravitas.

But what exactly is gravitas? The Cambridge Dictionary defines gravitas as:

‘seriousness and importance of manner, causing feelings of respect and trust in others’.

And Caroline Goyder, in her book Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority, gives the definition of the Roman word as:

gravitas n. figuratively of persons, ‘dignity, presence, influence’.

Think of gravitas as the alchemy between gravity, or the substance and ‘weight’ a person carries, and levity, an enlivening element of humour and personality, which complements and lifts that sense of seriousness.


Goyder says gravitas relates to having roots and wings.

“Roots, because gravitas gives you a solid foundation to express yourself with confidence and authority. Gravitas flourishes when you stop trying to be someone else and plant deep roots in who you are.

“Wings, because as GK Chesterson put it, ‘Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.’”

I asked the recently retired former chief marketing officer of a global drinks brand what stands out most in those who epitomise gravitas. She condensed their qualities in three words: authentic, charismatic, confidence.

People with gravitas radiate a natural confidence that says ‘take me seriously’, but they do it in a way that feels light and personable. They are comfortable in their own skin and are prepared to be authentic, which means they are happy to show their vulnerability, including saying when they don’t have the answers.

Their authenticity draws people in and builds trust. Their charisma, that appealing spark of personality, ensures people view them as possessing gravitas rather than appearing intimidating.

Is gravitas an innate quality or can you develop it?

There are people who seem to exude a natural self-confidence or authority. We have all met children who have amazed us with an unusual level of self-belief and willingness to go against the grain.

And while it may come more naturally to some, carrying yourself with authority and presence is something that can be learned and improved upon by anyone.

In her book, Goyder offers an enlightening and accessible route map to increasing gravitas:

Knowledge + purpose + passion (– anxiety) = Gravitas

Firstly, ask yourself, about what can you speak with authority?

Each one of us can develop a body of worthwhile knowledge on subjects that are valuable to others and which align with our own sense of purpose.

The clearer you are about that purpose, the easier it is to access greater gravitas. To discover (or rediscover) your sense of purpose, ask yourself: what matters to me?

Appreciating your values and knowing what you believe in will help you to tap into your emotions, inspire others and bring energy, direction and focus into the workplace.

If you are lacking confidence, is it because you feel there are gaps in your knowledge? If so, can you sign up to a training course or find a knowledgeable mentor? Conversely, do you need to trust that you know enough already and instead work on your self-belief?

Consider also how you impart your knowledge – are you coming across in a way that shows others that you believe in and are confident about your message and therefore they can be too?

Is your posture, your presence in the room or your voice letting you down? Are you using language that effectively apologises for giving your opinion? We can all benefit from finding more inclusive ways to open up a discussion, but watch out for permission-seeking language such as, ‘Can I just say something?’ or ‘Would it be alright if I offered a different perspective?’

(For social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on ‘power posing’ to boost feelings of confidence, see Amy Cuddy | Speaker | TED.)

Feel reassured that even the most senior leaders will have invested in coaching to improve their communication skills; in fact, if they’re any good at communicating with presence and impact, they most certainly have. So, if this is something you feel you need to work on, it can be addressed with a little effort and investment.

Whether it is the gaining of knowledge or working on how you bring it to life, taking purposeful action will undoubtedly improve your sense of gravitas.

How does gravitas unlock transformational leadership?

Leadership of the self has to come before you can authentically lead others. Even if you have a title of leadership and the authority that comes with it, the full potential of leadership only truly opens up when people want to follow you.

Gravitas is what sets transformational leaders apart from transactional leaders. Transactional leadership relies on status and traditional lines of authority, and suits linear, non-complex contexts: ‘I’ve told you what needs to be done and because of your respective role in comparison with mine, you need to do it.’

Conversely, transformational leadership inspires others to follow and to bring their full selves to what you are asking them to do. These leaders know that they are unlikely to have all the ideas needed to achieve a goal and feel comfortable saying so. But, with the gravitas that comes from believing in their message and conveying it in a way that inspires confidence, they can galvanise the creative thinking and discretionary effort of their colleagues to make great things happen.

Transformational leadership calls for ‘diverse gravitas’ – not a one-style-suits-all persona one might associate with traditional ‘alpha’ leadership models. Knowing yourself and being purposeful about developing your gravitas authentically is key to tapping into your deeper levels of leadership potential.

A lifelong pursuit

We’ve been talking about how gravitas is something we can develop so that it comes from within. But it is also contextual – to maintain it, we need to pay continuous attention to how we engage with different audiences, adapting to what is needed to create a meaningful sense of connection.

The key takeaway is that no matter what stage you are in your career, you can harness the qualities to develop your gravitas.

The American psychologist, Professor Carole Dweck, is known for her research into fixed and growth mindsets in relation to learning and intelligence. Her work shows that, with focus and persistence, anyone can learn new skills and develop their natural qualities. This is just as true when it comes to gravitas.

And note that everyone, no matter how senior, will question themselves and will have an inner critic nibbling away at their confidence. For more information about anxiety and ways to manage it, see our ideas here: How to make anxiety your friend

Questions to ask yourself

  • Who do you know with any level of gravitas? What is it about them that makes you perceive them this way and how could you emulate it in a way that feels authentic to you?
  • Conversely, are there people who don’t inspire you with confidence or a sense of authority? What is it that they do (or don’t do) that makes you feel this?
  • What could you do in your own life to instil a higher sense of confidence or authority?

And finally…

For an entertaining and informative take on gravitas and presence, you could read journalist, writer and comedian Viv Groskop’s Happy High Status book or listen to her chart-topping podcast How to Own the Room.

Further reading

If you found this piece useful, you might like to read our other articles:

Next month

Next month, we take a break for the summer, but we’ll be back with a thought-provoking topic in September.