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The Gravitas Trap

3 min read

What I really aspire to, is to regain the joy I used to feel with my work and with my colleagues.  What I really want is to feel like I am part of the team, not apart from it.

We all know something about Golden Handcuffs: financial incentives that attract us to a job, but then, over time, lock us inside of it so that it begins to feels like a prison.

Meet the close cousin of the golden handcuffs: the Gravitas Trap.

Gravitas, a Latin word meaning dignity, weight, or seriousness, is an undeniably important quality for leaders. Winston Churchill had it. Nelson Mandela still has it. Barack Obama, despite his relative youth, has acquired it quickly as a result of the demands of his presidential office.

In fact, almost all leadership literature suggests that gravitas is attractive and desirable—a quality that aspiring young managers should learn to adopt in order to add heft and credibility to their otherwise youthful energy.

But beware—especially ye of advancing age and seniority—beware the perils of too much gravitas. In my travels around the world teaching presence and presentation to leaders, I have observed a communication weakness that can be tricky to avoid, regardless of language or corporate culture. Unintentionally acquired over years of practice, this style of management projects such weight, seriousness and authority that others begin to perceive the leader as unapproachable, distant, judgmental and, worst of all, simply boring.

Welcome to the Gravitas Trap.

I recently found myself in Oslo coaching a respected senior executive at a large financial institution. By all outward measures of career success he had certainly made it—and he carried his title and his responsibilities with an undeniable authority.

However, he was also quick to share with me privately that he faced a challenge that kept him up at night. Despite (or because of) his senior role in the firm, he felt as if he could not generate an atmosphere of authentic and honest dialogue, even with his otherwise most trusted lieutenants. As long as he himself was in the room, the room was silent. And the silence was killing him, as well as threatening the health of his company.

Signs that you or someone you work with is stuck in the gravitas trap:

  • Perceived as unapproachable
  • Tends not to reveal vulnerability or weakness
  • Rarely receives innovative ideas, substantial input or pushback from colleagues
  • Uses a small range of facial expression
  • Feels as if the high stakes responsibilities of his or her office do not allow for spontaneity or risk-taking

Ways to extract yourself from the gravitas trap:

  • Smile more—as Mandela would do, despite all that he had endured.
  • Get curious. Ask more questions—and take the time to listen to the answers. Then ask follow-up questions.
  • Be transparent about your desire for dialogue—tell your employees and team members that you value their input and you seek honest debate. Publicly acknowledge them when they do speak up.
  • Ask for help—as Churchill did in the darkest days of the war. It will engender an even deeper level of loyalty.
  • If all else fails, take a risk with your wardrobe–wear jeans to work on Friday!

On the last day with my Norwegian coaching client he shared an insight that clearly indicated that he was beginning to loosen the springs of the trap that he had built for himself over the years.

“What I really aspire to,” he said, “is to regain the joy I used to feel with my work and with my colleagues. What I really want is to feel like I am part of the team, not apart from it.”

Do your company’s leaders need more development? Learn about on offering: Leading with Presence.


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