Gravitas: If You Don’t Have It, You Can Learn It

It was one of those hot, humid nights in Minnesota when the air conditioning in my small office was simply not capable of keeping me cool.

My sleeves were rolled up and I was sweating (literally) while working on the budget projections for next year.

I suddenly realized that it was 6:30 p.m. and our Tuesday Twilight nine-hole member group would be in the middle of enjoying dinner. It was also one of the weeks when members would invite guest couples to join the event.

I walked into the dining room…directly to my club president’s table and he introduced me to his guests. I then worked my way around the dining room and greeted members and their guests at all of the other tables.

As I walked back to my office, I felt certain that I had made a good impression, not only because I greeted every member table but also because I took the time to talk to their guests. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

When my club president, Mr. Rosenbaum, walked into my office for our typical meeting the following Saturday morning he was rather direct.

“Dick, do you understand what the word gravitas means?” he asked. I told him I did not. He then explained to me that the word was from the Latin word gravis, meaning serious and that Webster defined the word as dignity, seriousness or solemnity of manner.

But, he added, “I also think it represents how someone will comport his or herself and whether they demonstrate ‘class and grace’ in their social and professional interactions.

“When you walked into the dining room last Tuesday evening, your tie was loosened, your sleeves were rolled up and you were perspiring, which was even evident on your shirt. You appeared totally disheveled; the exact opposite of gravitas and I was actually embarrassed for you and for the club when you introduced yourself to my guests.

“While you clearly demonstrated a lack of gravitas last Tuesday, you can certainly learn how to develop that executive presence in the future.”

Then he shared three characteristics with me that he believed were key to exhibiting gravitas. While I might have heard some of these and other tips before, I decided that I would focus on the three he suggested.

The first is personal appearance. “Dick when we see you at the club, we expect to see someone professionally dressed who looks like they are in control,” he said. From that day on I never appeared in the club dining room without my sport coat or suit coat and the rest of the management team followed my example. Mr. Rosenbaum also said that part of appearance is body language with good posture and slow and measured movement.

The second is how you speak and the language that you use. He told me the best way to communicate was to ask questions and listen, instead of talking about myself.

“The best conversationalists learn more about the person they have just met than they share about themselves,” he suggested. “It is a great way to honor and respect the person you are talking to. When you slow down your speech you can say more by saying less and your comments will carry more weight,” he continued.

The third is how you act. Instead of moving around a room in an agitated fashion, slow down and take your time as you leisurely yet purposely stop to engage in conversation with people.

“Quite frankly, Dick, the way you were rushing around the dining room last Tuesday we thought maybe something was wrong. You seemed nervous and out of control,” Mr. Rosenbaum added.

I think we have all encountered people who seem to have that special “charisma” or “gravitas” and through the years I’ve observed that they will typically exhibit all three of the characteristics that Mr. Rosenbaum shared with me.

They will always seem to be the best dressed person in the room. They tend to ask more questions and listen attentively while speaking succinctly when it is their turn. And finally, since people tend to gather around them, they seem to move around a room at a very measured pace.

I’m not certain that I will ever achieve the level of gravitas that I see in so many people I admire but I will always work on the three tips Mr. Rosenbaum shared with me.

This much I know for sure. 

THE BOARDROOM MAGAZINEJuly/August 2023

“This Much I Know for Sure” is a regular feature in BoardRoom magazine beginning Fall 2022. Dick will share some of his reflections based on his 50-plus years of working in the private club business.