Leading with Gravitas…it’s not as easy as it looks

Oct 20th, 2022


So much about leadership comes down to gravitas and your ability to utilise it in everything you do. For a new leader coming into a role, the gravitas you show in those first moments can make or break your position of authority and influence. We have seen over these last few weeks that poor handling of a situation can damage a new leader’s early authority.

Many of my clients come to me at a time when they are transitioning into new leadership roles and one thing they are most keen to work on is their ability to go in and influence from the start in a way that exerts the right balance of control and understanding so they succeed.

Reflecting on my experience working with leaders, and looking at what has happened over the last few weeks in UK  politics, here are 8 insights that are useful to consider for leaders in new  roles in order to not just lead – but lead in a way that inspires and reassures:


1.  Go in and ‘Listen’ 

Whilst the temptation to go into a role and make your mark is strong, particularly during turbulent times, the best thing you can do to start with is simply listen. It is such a simple word, but it is the only way to get a temperature gauge of the culture of the company you are operating in and an idea of what is most important to the people you are leading.

I recall a client who had been promoted to a newly formed role of COO of a major Plc. He was aware that him taking his new role impacted many others and he took the time to talk to people and listen to them. This allowed him to understand the sensitivities related to his role and the restructuring that had taken place around it. By showing the emotional intelligence to listen to his colleagues, he brought them onside to follow him, rather than oppose him. They appreciated that he was genuinely curious and was intent on working collaboratively with them, they immediately saw him as an ally rather than a boss and felt supported, which built the trust he needed.


2.  Test the impact of your message

The mini-budget was the most important ‘pitch’ the Chancellor and Liz Truss had to deliver. What intrigued me was their surprise at the reaction it received.

You need to be confident that the messages you are pushing out are not just strong, but that they will be well received. While it may be tempting to make your mark quickly with some big decisions, you are better taking a step back, taking stock and thinking through scenarios. Be open to having a debate with key advisors around the pros, cons, risks and rewards before going public.

Stress test the messages with enough people within your organisation or wider circle of trust to see how it lands with different people with differing views, backgrounds and experiences. Ask for it to be picked apart and honestly critiqued because you need to know what your critics are going to say and pre-empt them by having answers ready or providing answers before they’ve even asked the questions.

Your message is only as strong as how it is delivered, so prepare and practice your delivery, as well as the delivery of others who will be communicating your messages for you.


3.  Play to your strengths and fill in the gaps

 To be a strong leader takes a high level of emotional intelligence, especially in understanding what your strengths and weaknesses are; and using this to choose who to have in your inner circle to complement you.

Labour Leader Keir Starmer seems to have understood this. At the Labour Party Conference last month, the two people he turned to as his alternative message deliverers were Angela Rayner and Rachel Reeves. Rayner known as someone who his own critics support, whilst Reeves has demonstrated the ability to communicate engagingly with authority.

Author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn, says that “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. They determine what conversations dominate your attention and the views you are regularly exposed to. Be mindful that those five people provide the skillsets and opinions that you may not possess so that collectively you have diversity in thinking and experience.


4.  Prepare for the unexpected

Nothing makes leaders look stronger than handling tough questioning with confidence and ease. Put the time in up-front to prepare for different scenarios and think about what needs to be said and done to gain trust.  It seems rare to see people actually answering a question with clarity and simplicity vs reciting a prepared message that has been heard several times before, which can shatter any trust in your authenticity and competence.

A number of years ago the CEO of a construction company who I had been working closely with found himself having to deal with a sensitive situation involving a tragic accident on one of his sites. He felt he was going into the “lion’s den” when preparing for his presentation to the board.  We spent time looking at what he wanted to be saying, what he needed to be saying and what was going to be expected of him. As a result he had answers for the uncomfortable questions we had predicted would be asked, and he came out strongly with solutions that went beyond what was expected. He came across as both a leader who cared, and a leader who was in control of a situation.


5.  Use proof data to back up your plans

Big data is a term that has become commonplace in the business world. More and more of the teams I work with are integrating data analysts as part of their client-facing teams because they can predict trends and give insights that add real value.

Data and research give credence to your plans and provide reassurance that your thinking is based on tested substance, rather than speculation or guesswork.

I recall a client speaking of an analyst in their organisation who had been studying the Covid Virus and its impact and predicted the impact it would have on businesses way before most companies.  As a result they started making plans as a contingency measure and were able to adjust more speedily than most of their competitors.


6.  Be aware of your body language

Your body language can say more about what you think and how you feel than the words you use. Your body does not lie, and it is very easy to lose confidence in a speaker when their body language reveals they are uncomfortable or uncertain about the message they are delivering.

In a recent meeting with an executive who was preparing for an important meeting, I shared my observation at times when his body language was incongruent with the message being delivered.  He acknowledged he felt insecure about being the youngest person on the ExCo which resulted in him holding back when making recommendations to a more experienced board thus reducing his gravitas.  When we reflected on the reasons why he had achieved his success so early he was able to adjust his mindset and authentically make the recommendations he wished with confidence and ease.  Ask a trusted confidant to give you feedback on your body language as so often we focus more on the content of our message.


7.  Show your character

People want to see the human behind the role, they will buy into your character before your strategy.  Crisis can often reveal character.

I can still remember the way Lufthansa CEO Karsten Spohr demonstrated his character when handling the media after the tragedy of a plane crash in 2015.  His first response to a question about finding the black box, was instinctively to make clear that his number one priority was getting the families out to the site and looked after, with anything else able to wait. It was a spontaneous response which demonstrated his values and what he and his  business stood for.  I had never seen him before and I recall it made me feel curiously more positive about flying Lufthansa, despite the circumstances, because of the compassionate leadership he showed.


8.  Don’t lose your spirit

It is rare for any leader to go through their career without having a knock-back, the key to success is how you deal with them.   You need to be quick to own your mistakes, be accountable and demonstrate how you intend to resolve the problem and make changes.

Self-belief is a trait shared by the world’s most successful political and business leaders. If you’re not confident in yourself and your ability to be resilient at times of challenge, why should anyone else have confidence in you.


Confidence is not a quality – it is a state of mind and I have met many able leaders who have doubts or lose it temporarily for one reason or another, and others who wish to build gravitas and increase the impact they have.  If you are seeking to leverage your influence and gravitas and achieve your ambitions do get in touch at team@potentialplus-int.com

To learn more about what our clients have gained from our coaching we have lots of testimonials that you might find interesting.