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Gravitas: How to be a Project Manager of Substance

Gravitas - How to be a Project Manager of Substance

Gravitas is something every Project Manager should be aiming at. It's the sense of authority, or substance that leads people to trust your judgement and rely on your advice. And, whilst experience, track record and, frankly, gray hairs contribute to your gravitas, there's more to it than that. We've all met people with plenty of all those, yet their words seem to carry little weight with the people around them.

And, likewise, you've probably met people who are still young and relatively inexperienced. Yet, for some reason, you want to trust them. What they say and the way they say it is not just persuasive. No, it's also weighty. It impresses people with the sense that here is someone to listen to and to take seriously.

PMI Talent Triangle - Technical Project Management

Isn't that how a project manager should be?

If you think so, then read on. We have plenty of advice for you.

What is Gravitas?

Gravity is the physical force that gives objects weight.

And the Latin word gravitas comes from the same root. It was one of the Roman virtues and it conveyed a sense of seriousness, dignity, and weighty opinions. It was what people wanted of their politicians, public figures, and generals.

Gravitas - How to be a Project Manager of Substance

Gravitas - How to be a Project Manager of Substance

And we want it just as much today...

Certainly we want it from politicians, public figures, and generals, but we don't always get it. But we also want it from professionals who deliver services and lead the organizations that society depends upon. And among those are you: the Project Manager.

Don't we want a deliberate, insightful, strategic thinker who is serious and dignified?

This doesn't mean you can't use humor, and improvize. But it does mean that the people around you can trust that you know when to have fun, and when to be serious. And that way, they can feel safe in your hands, trust your judgement, and seek out your opinions.

This is a huge asset to you when you want to:

  • Lead and motivate your team
  • Inspire confidence in your boss, client, or sponsor
  • Engage and influence your stakeholders

...and Why does it Matter?

If you are a project manager, or aspire to be one, you may have found yourself thinking something like one of these:

'My manager says that I lack gravitas'

'I want to move my project management career to the next level but people don’t take me seriously'

'I keep being overlooked for bigger projects'

'I get told that I’m too young to take on such a senior role'

'I sometimes feel intimidated by Partners and Clients and don’t speak out when I have something to say'

'As a woman in an industry traditionally dominated by men, I’m seen as lightweight and find it hard to get my contribution heard or acknowledged'

To operate effectively at the senior level, on big projects, you need your colleagues to view you as influential. And to do that, you need to be mindful of what you say, how you say it, and when you make your contributions. But, if you can find a way to carry the confidence of people around you, you are more likely to be a member of (rather than an outsider to) the top team. Having an influential voice among those at the big table needs 'gravitas'.

When gravitas is lacking

When gravitas is lacking, people know it. But, when it's present, they sit up and take notice of you:

People seek her out for her thoughts and advice.'

His ideas always influence the Project Board, especially when there's uncertainty or disagreement.'

When she speaks, people sit up and take notice.'

With gravitas, your leadership moves up a notch... or three. Your contributions at senior levels will create impact. And you will get the attention you are due. Your thoughts will carry weight. When you do it right, gravitas is not a mask or an act. It's a way to ensure you are heard in important discussions.

Your Biggest Business Asset

What makes the very top people in any context stand out?

Is it their wealth, their intellect, their appearance, their energy, their charisma?

I don’t think that it is any of these, although you can certainly find plenty of examples of each. Rather, I think it is something far more fundamental. People at the very top of their domain  - be it business, politics, sport, philanthropy, educations, service, or entertainment – have one thing in common.

We listen to them.

We want to hear what they have to say. And, because of this, we are likely to be influenced by their opinions.

This is, of course, the basis of LinkedIn’s Influencer program. Here is an example of a business giving the top people from many arenas a platform because we want to know what they have to say.

When you get to this position, your words will carry extra weight. The word we use for the characteristic that these people share therefore means weight. It is gravitas.

It seems to me that gravitas acts like a feedback system. We listen to people who have gravitas, and people have gravitas because we listen to them. The trick, therefore, is to start this self-reinforcing process: to acquire some gravitas. Because, without a doubt, being listened to and having others seek out and value your opinions, would be you’re your single biggest business asset.

In this article, I’m going to offer a lot of advice in the form of tips and techniques for how to develop gravitas. But I want to start with the best.

Morgan Freeman's Secret Ingredient

If there is one person who, to me, role models gravitas constantly, it is the actor Morgan Freeman.

In fact, there are few actors who have got to play that most pervasive of characters, god, and none with as much… gravitas. I don’t know what Morgan Freeman is like as a person, but his characters frequently have a depth, a solidity, and a weight that draws us to them. They have gravitas.

So what is Freeman’s secret in creating these characters? He puts it very simply – although you will find it far from easy to do:

Stillness. That’s all and that’s the hardest thing. Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen – that stillness becomes a radiance.

Have you noticed how little hurry some people seem to feel? How calm them seem – not agitated, not fidgeting; just patient.

It’s agitation and rush that rob us of our impact, because they betray a lack of confidence.

If you want gravitas, take your time… slow down. And the ultimate expression of slowness is stillness.

The Real Power behind Gravitas

Let’s extend that idea a step further. We recognise gravitas when we encounter a set of attitudes and behaviours that conform to our expectations of authority, credibility and wisdom.

What makes gravitas does depend, to a degree, on the culture and society you live and work in. My expertise is in Western, English-speaking cultures. But there is one thing that I am confident transcends all human cultures.

How Your Speak

If gravitas means not rushing, this applies to your speech, as well as to your movement. A steady, deliberate pace conveys your confidence in what you are saying.

As a bonus, speaking slowly increases your control over your speech and your ability to relax your vocal cords, allowing your voice to express all of its natural resonances. This will allow people to hear the components that are at the bottom end of your tonal register. Deeper tones tend to convey authority.

People who are absolutely confident don’t need to shout, so keep the volume down too. When people choose to strain to catch your important ideas, you know you have got their attention. And, having worked hard to hear you, they wil value what you say to a far higher degree.

The Power of Silence

The ultimate in slowing your speech, the linguistic equivalent of still… is silence.

Yet, this is something few can master. Used at the right time, it can be a devastating contribution to your argument. How much more subtle and understated can your contribution be?

If you don’t have an insight or contribution to make, remember that smart people will always find something smart to say. But Ludwig Wittgenstein was wise when he said:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.'

Don’t be afraid to not have an opinion or an answer: no insight is better than shallow insight.

But silence has a power all of its own. I constantly advise the people I coach that, in a conversation,

the person who is most comfortable with silence has an advantage: they have control.

You can use silence as a question, as an answer, and as a way to win an argument.

The person who is most comfortable with silence has an advantage: they have control. Click To Tweet

A Question

Have you noticed how desperate most people are to fill a silence in a conversation?

If you ask a question, you’ll get an answer. But if you respond to the answer with silence, you will often get more. Desperate to fill the silence, the other person will say anything to ease their discomfort. Sometimes they will give you a new answer to your question – something buried deeper, and perhaps something they didn’t intend to let out.

An Answer

And silence is a great answer in itself.

We often rush to give our answers to people’s questions, fearing any delay indicates we don’t have a response readily to hand. So clearly, we are poorly informed or a slow thinker. This is wrong. Your quick answer says to me:

My question was easy, the answer was obvious, I’m a fool.

Why would you want to make me feel like a fool?'

Of course, you don’t easily make me feel like a fool. So maybe your quick answer makes me think:

You jumped in, you didn’t think, you don’t care much about my question, you didn’t listen to it’s subtleties, you’re giving me a stock answer, you’re a fool..'

Why would you want to look a fool?

A slow answer, following a silence, on the other hand, says to me:

you paused, you thought about my question, it was a good question and you recognized that, you paid me the respect of thinking afresh about how to answer it, you’re a wise person, I should listen to your answer.'

Why wouldn’t you pause?

An Argument

When you are debating a topic, sometimes a silence is the strongest point you make.

It lets your audience make your point for you. It can say not 'I have nothing to say' but instead 'what you expect me to say is not worth saying'. Silence creates space for listeners to fill in the gaps.

Use silence wisely, and it adds weight to your words.

Silence is the real power behind gravitas. Click To Tweet

How to Develop Gravitas

Now available at OnlinePMCourses: my online video program, 'How to Develop Gravitas'.

This course contains 21 short videos, with over an hour of content. Most of the videos contain a short lecture of under 5 minutes that will introduce you to a simple idea that will help you strengthen your gravitas and authority.

Together, they build into a comprehensive set of techniques that will make you a professional - and a project manager - of substance. You will become someone whom people look to for advice, insight, and guidance.

How to Develop Gravitas

Find out More and Get Started Now

Three Powerful Tips for Gaining Gravitas

I have already discussed the importance of Stillness and Silence. I’d like to offer you three more techniques to develop gravitas that start with S.

Space

We talk about an aura of gravitas as if it generates a space around you. You can do a lot to create this.

We all have a ‘bubble’ of personal space, that others can detect and will usually respect. When you are with people, imagine your bubble expanding to twice, three times, four times the volume of your normal space, out to the edges of the room. As you visualise this, it will change the subtle cues that your body language gives out to the people around you. You will notice that they will respect a greater distance.

You can also choose to draw people in, by turning down the volume and leaning forward. This will give them a sense of occasion, and underline the extent to which you are in control of the conversation.

Synthesise

I have said nothing so far about the content of what you say. I need to assume that, if you want people to listen to you and value what you say, you have something worthwhile for them to hear. But what is the essential character of what people with gravitas say.

One of the things you will most often hear is synthesis. Many of the people we look to as wise, and who speak with deep authority, are able to see from different perspectives, and understand a broad array of disciplines. They will almost certainly have deep expertise in a narrow field, but this depth does not come at the cost of breadth. Because what they are able to do, is to bring together the understanding from different quarters and create new insights from their combination.

Gravitas demands the ability to learn broadly and form new connections that help move ideas forward.

Summarise

Another talent that people with gravitas will put on display is their ability to make the complex simple, and the murky clear. They simplify (another S).

Smart people will usually dive in with their ideas to ensure that they are heard. They will have opinions on everything and feel the need to share all of them, as soon as possible. Wiser souls wait, observe, then assess and summarise what they have heard. They bring clarity, informed evaluation and, above all, penetrating insight.

There's more...

How to Develop Gravitas

The topic of professional gravitas is a big one. And there is far more to learn that I can possibly cover - even in this long article. So I have decided to make my online video program, 'How to Develop Gravitas' available through OnlinePMCourses. This course contains 21 short videos, with over an hour of content. Most of the videos contain a short lecture of under 5 minutes that will introduce you to a simple idea that will help you strengthen your gravitas and authority.

Together, they build into a comprehensive set of techniques that will make you a professional - and a project manager - of substance. You will become someone whom people look to for advice, insight, and guidance.

How to Develop Gravitas

Find out More and Get Started Now

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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