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Why Gravitas Is Overrated

Gravitas is often an excuse for why someone lacks the "right" presence - why someone stylistically doesn't fit the mold of what some people think leaders should look like.
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The idea of someone having or needing "gravitas" has come up in a few conversations recently. In my opinion, gravitas is often an excuse for why someone lacks the "right" presence - why someone stylistically doesn't fit the mold of what some people think leaders should look like. Each time it's been discussed, I've found it unsettling - and even a bit backwards - but it wasn't until I really thought about it in context of our business that I've figured out why it bugs me so much.

Here's why I find gravitas is a misplaced concept today:

The definition of gravitas is: dignity, seriousness or solemnity of manner. In my view, it's also often a masculine and authoritative description.

And while there's nothing wrong with that, gravitas seems like a word that should be used to describe a banker, not someone who works in a creative field. Consider the skill sets that it takes to succeed in our business in an ever-changing, complex world: passion, curiosity, capability, decisiveness, flexibility, respect - just to name a few. Our industry needs more inspirational thinkers. More innovators. More dot connectors. More people who push the envelope - not just appear to be taking the business seriously. But, people who are willing to put their ass on the line for a brilliant idea. That's real leadership.

Charisma and passion are both effective leadership styles that are more relevant in today's business world. What charismatic and passionate people have is the ability to inspire and get people to want to go on a journey with you. You can have those qualities without gravitas; those are just signs of a strong leader.

There have been a number of books written about the type of leadership the world needs today. John Gerzema's The Athena Doctrine explains that the types of leaders getting traction are empathetic leaders who are nurturing, listening, collaborating and sharing. Not traditional command and control leaders. The Huffington Post recently shared a study of 1500 leaders and their employees, concluding that "humble leaders who have increased self-awareness and insight experience greater commitment and performance from their employees."

According to author Simon Sinek, "true leadership is about empowering others to achieve things they didn't think possible." It's not about authority, management acumen or being in charge. While this seems obvious to many of us, it's sadly a leap for a lot of people in our business still.

So are gravitas and empathy mutually exclusive? No, of course not. But, in my experience, most leaders who exhibit gravitas are more controlling, self-defined and often arrogant leaders - less about empowering others and more about making themselves look good.

For our industry to thrive, we need to be more open-minded about what great leaders look like. Less fixated on archaic definitions and expectations. And let the results speak for themselves.