When it comes to how you’re perceived in your professional life, it’s likely you want to be taken seriously. You want your words to carry weight. You want to be influential and listened to, regardless of your position in a company. You want to carry yourself with gravitas.
My guest today is an organizational psychologist and executive coach who explains how to cultivate this quality in her book Authentic Gravitas: Who Stands Out and Why. Her name is Rebecca Newton and we begin our conversation together by delving into the traits that go into embodying gravitas, as well as the myths we have about this quality. We discuss how gravitas doesn’t necessarily include confidence and charisma, as well as its false manifestations. Rebecca then walks us through the steps to carrying yourself with gravitas in meetings and presentations, including why you should script the beginning and end of your speeches, and how to put more gravitas into your voice and words. We also discuss what to focus on when you’re pulled into an impromptu conversation, how to get real feedback about how you can improve the way you carry yourself, and how to convey gravitas in online communication. We then discuss why practicing self-leadership is so important to developing gravitas, why Rebecca thinks everyone needs to create a “personal thought leadership window,” and how you can use your drive to and from work to become more thoughtful and reflective. We end our conversation with the questions you should start asking yourself today to develop more gravitas.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What is gravitas?
- Debunking the myths about gravitas
- The relationship between gravitas and courage
- Do you need charisma in order to have gravitas?
- What is surface gravitas?
- An impact model for increasing your gravitas
- What are some things we typically do that diminish our gravitas?
- Do certain voices/tones have more gravitas?
- Can you convey gravitas through your computer screen?
- What is self-leadership? Why is it important?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Lessons From Walter Cronkite in the Lost Art of Gravitas
- AoM series on charisma
- Influence, Persuasion, and Personal Presentation
- 9 Ways to Become More Courageous
- How to Increase Your Courage and Bravery
- How to Command a Room
- The Importance of Building Your Vocabulary
- An Introduction to Public Speaking
- A Kind of, Sort of Eulogy for the Declarative Sentence
- Becoming Well-Spoken: How to Minimize Your Uh’s and Um’s
- How to Improve Your Speaking Voice
- Solitude and Leadership
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When it comes to how you’re perceived in your professional life, it’s likely you wanna be taken seriously. You want your words to carry weight, you want to be influential and listened to regardless of your position in a company, you want to carry yourself with gravitas. My guest today is an organizational psychologist and executive coach who explains how to cultivate this quality in her book Authentic Gravitas: Who Stands Out and Why. Her name is Rebecca Newton, and we begin our conversation together by delving into the traits that go into embodying gravitas, as well as the myths we have about this quality. We discuss how gravitas doesn’t necessarily include confidence and charisma, as well as its false manifestations. Rebecca then walks us through the steps to carrying yourself with gravitas in meetings and presentations, including why you should script the beginning and end of your speeches and how to put more gravitas into your voice and words.
We also discuss what to focus on when you’re pulled into an impromptu conversation, how to get real feedback about how you can improve the way you carry yourself, and how to convey gravitas in online communication. We then discuss why practicing self-leadership is so important to developing gravitas, why Rebecca thinks everyone needs to create a personal thought leadership window, and how you can use your drive to and from work to become more thoughtful and reflective. And we end our conversation with the questions you should start asking yourself today to develop more gravitas. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/gravitas. Rebecca joins me now via clearcast.io.
All right, Rebecca Newton, welcome to the show.
Rebecca Newton: Thanks for having me, Brett. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are an organizational psychologist, and you’ve got a book out called Authentic Gravitas: Who Stands Out and Why. So I’m curious, how did your work as an organizational psychologist… First off, what is an organizational psychologist, and then how did this lead you to writing about gravitas?
Rebecca Newton: So, great question. I am… I essentially do leadership development and look at how to create healthy teams and cultures in organizations. And so I’ve been working both one-to-one coaching people and running large-scale executive education programs for close to 20 years now. And time and time again, people would say to me, particularly in a coaching conversation, they’d say, “Rebecca, do you know what I really need? I need more gravitas.” And it was almost like this. People will often whisper it, they’ll say it quietly, as if they shouldn’t want it or they don’t think they could really have it. And I think that people believe that they’re very unique in feeling that this is a gap for them, when actually I just came across it time and time again. So hence why I went on a journey to research it to find out what it was, what it wasn’t, and to come up with some practical ideas that would really help people to increase their gravitas.
Brett McKay: Well, so, when your clients whispered to you, “I need more gravitas,” what did they mean by that? What do they think gravitas is?
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, so it’s about wanting to be trusted, to be respected, to have their words carry weight, so having their ideas taken seriously. But one thing that kept coming up that I think is a really great description, people would often say when they were describing other people who had gravitas. So I would put that exact question out to them, and say, “Okay, what do you exactly mean by this?” and… In the research as well. And people would say it’s about being able to lead the room regardless of your position in it. So to some degree it’s about being able to influence and to be taken seriously and have your ideas matter and make a difference in a positive contribution regardless of the hierarchy and regardless of the position that you’re in in terms of your authority.
Brett McKay: As you started researching this, right, so you saw a need amongst your clients, they wanted to have more gravitas, be taken seriously. I imagine you started asking them, “Okay, what do you think you need to do to have gravitas?” And I’m sure you saw some, not… Like some myths that started popping up.
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, it was really interesting to see. I think one of the things that we have to do is debunk the myths in our own mind around what it means to have gravitas and what it takes to have gravitas. And a few things. So the first I call the myth of the gravitas gift, which is, people often see it as something that they have or they don’t have, and so it’s unhelpful if you think “I don’t have this,” and it’s something that people are almost born with, almost as a personality trait, which is just not true. And what we did was have a look and see where people had developed gravitas, so as reported by other people. So a manager would come in and say, “This is an area that this person needs to work on, they need to have more gravitas,” and then they would recognize that down the track with some development that that person had increased their gravitas. So it definitely is something that can be developed, whereas I think instinctively, it’s easy for us to think, “I don’t have that, it’s not really attainable to me.”
Rebecca Newton: So that’s the first one. The second one is the myth of confidence. A lot of the time when we’re talking about gravitas, people would be linking it to confidence and would see confidence in other people and think that they needed to be that confident in order to have the same degree of gravitas. So what we did was ask the people who others reported as being confident, would they describe themselves as particularly confident? And it was interesting because time and time again, those people would say they didn’t always feel confident by any means, and that actually often they would… They would have to give themselves a pep talk. Some of them would say, “Rebecca, I look at myself in the mirror in the morning and I think, it’s okay, you’ve got this, you can do this.” And it’s interesting to me, we look at other people and we see things that we know… We know we doubt our own confidence, but we don’t know that other people doubt themselves at times. And certainly in this kind of professional working environment, people wouldn’t really walk around disclosing things like that.
So that’s the second thing, the myth of confidence, you don’t need to have a really high level of confidence in order to have gravitas, in fact, I think that working on increasing your gravitas ends up increasing your confidence. And then the third thing is the myth of charisma, so thinking that you need to be charismatic in order to have gravitas. In the research, we found that while people with gravitas… Some people with gravitas were charismatic, you didn’t need to be regarded as charismatic in order to have gravitas. Which is important because charisma is linked to a personality trait which is fairly stable over time, whereas gravitas is absolutely something that can be developed and learned.
Brett McKay: And we’ll dig more into this idea of charisma here in a bit, but one of the things that really stood out to me is that idea of gravitas means you’re a confident person. And I liked how you talked about instead of thinking about, you need to be confident, it was choose to be courageous, instead.
Rebecca Newton: Yeah. So that’s what people would say, so those people who others regarded as having a high degree of gravitas, when we asked them about this confidence point, they would describe how they were choosing courage. So they… Like giving themselves a pep talk and doing things afraid. So rather than focusing on whether they felt confident or not, they would be actively choosing to be courageous and to take a step forward. I often say to my clients, “I think that we should feel slightly nauseous, fairly regularly, it means that you’re stepping outside your comfort zone and pushing forward.” But we have these expectations on ourselves that we should feel confident, meaning we should feel comfortable in all scenarios. I think, actually, I would be worried if I always felt completely comfortable. I’d think I’m not moving forward, I’m not stretching.
Brett McKay: What are some examples from clients you’ve worked with where they had to choose to be courageous? I’m trying to see the practical, so our listeners can see like what does it looks like.
Rebecca Newton: Yeah. So one of the examples is things like often putting their hand up and volunteering or asking to be the person to do something. Like say it might be a big meeting or presentation, or to take the lead on a new project or idea, where they feel like it’s somewhat out of their comfort zone, or they think that naturally there are other people who might be a better fit for it, and so it would be easy to be reticent, it would be easier to let someone else take the lead. So choosing to put your hand up and to put yourself forward for those kind of situations, to… Maybe it’s managing a new group of people, maybe it’s starting a new social impact initiative, maybe it’s hosting a big presentation. Yeah, something that makes you feel, kind of sick.
Brett McKay: Right. Or maybe… It might be bringing up bad news that no one wants to hear.
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, that you have to be… I would wanna make sure people are particularly skilled. Bringing bad news is never an easy thing, so being skilled in having difficult conversations, well, I think might be important in that scenario. But absolutely, just the things that you might not… Might naturally not put your hand up for and not put yourself forward for, just making sure that on a regular basis, we’re not just keeping going in our… In what’s comfortable, ’cause actually it’s not just that we’re looking to be comfortable, it’s that we can get very busy, and so just doing what we keep… What we have to do already, I think we almost have to be prepared to react spontaneously, to be courageous, kind of choosing it as a mindset every day. “Today, if the opportunity arises, I’m gonna choose courage.” But also to be strategic about it, because otherwise we can just get busy and not think about how we could put ourselves forward for opportunities or ventures that might be taking us quite far out of our comfort zone.
Brett McKay: All right, so choose to be courageous instead of thinking about I gotta be confident in all situations. How about digging this idea of charisma. So you say that you don’t have to be charismatic to have gravitas. Any examples of individuals that you’ve come across that are not very charismatic, but they’re filled with gravitas as leaders?
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, actually, in a business context, I come across people often who wouldn’t be described as charismatic, but certainly would be regarded as having gravitas. I think that we can associate charisma with that kind of, loud, life of the party, engaging, winning everybody over, and that’s just not… Like I said, those people certainly can have authentic gravitas but you don’t need to have that to be regarded as somebody who has gravitas. So I’ll often see leaders… For example, there’s one professional services firm that I’ve worked with for a long time, and the person who, time and time again, others would cite as an example of somebody who they say has gravitas, is a very senior person in the firm who is extremely quiet and not assuming in any way, certainly would not be described as charismatic, is not the kind of life of the party, and just a very bright person who is committed to making a positive difference and it’s amazing to see. And then there’s other people who are… All kinds of… I guess the point is that regardless of personality type, you can have gravitas.
Brett McKay: And you also tell… You counsel your clients, instead of thinking about, “Okay, I’ve gotta focus on developing my charisma skills,” instead focus on just connecting with others.
Rebecca Newton: Yeah. Yeah, I think that… So when we looked at who are the people who are regarded by others to have gravitas, the consistency was that they were able to… They were regarded as people who connect well with other people. One of the things that can get in the way of genuinely meaningfully connecting with people is just the busyness of day-to-day work. And I think that we rush often from meeting to meeting and we don’t make time for what I call ‘space in the middle’. So we might have small talk kind of beforehand and then we jump straight into the agenda points, but we don’t really carve out time to find out what’s most important to people, what’s challenging for people right now. Whether that’s internally or externally with clients and customers, just those bigger, broader questions, spending time on that it’s difficult to do in the reality of daily working life. Yeah, but there’s lots of different things. I think one of the ways I frame it is about balancing clarity and curiosity. So, clarity in terms of knowing your own point of view, thinking about the value that you add, but equally being curious all the time and being interested in people and finding out where they’re at. What’s important to them? What’s driving them?
Brett McKay: Well, we’re gonna dig in here a little bit more because you’ve developed these models on how you can connect more with people. But before we do let’s sort of recap, so a definition of gravitas or authentic gravitas, is someone, it seems that they’re take seriously, they provide value to others and they do that pretty much by choosing to be courageous, doing the hard things, being uncomfortable, and then connecting with others, just being curious about them and finding out how they can influence them more effectively.
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, so there’s a range of factors. So absolutely they’re courageous, they’re committed to connecting with people, which is a choice that we all get to make, right? I’d say they are collaborators, so not independent superheroes, not having to be the one who has the spotlight on them all the time. It’s interesting, the subtitle of the book is Who Stands Out and Why, and I think the people who stand out at work are often the ones who aren’t necessarily trying to. So they’re really committed to adding value and meaningful connection and collaboration with other people, and they end up standing out, but they’re not necessarily looking for the spotlight.
Brett McKay: This is your definition of authentic gravitas, you also contrast that with adverse gravitas. What does that look like?
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, so I think that we have all come across people who, in their posturing, present in a way that we might expect of people that have gravitas. So I call it surface gravitas when people posture and they present as being fairly self-important and owning the space in the room, and being dominant and… So surface gravitas is basically when you look at someone and in that moment we might regard them as being someone who’s particularly serious or important, and they’re giving off the signals that they are important. But adverse gravitas is… That may or may not have a negative impact. Adverse gravitas shuts down the contribution of other people in the room. So it has a negative impact on the people around them. And I think that we all know what that’s like. So people end up walking on egg shells, they may not contribute as much as they otherwise would, and so the kind of collective value of the group is diminished by the fact that one person is particularly domineering or posturing their own kind of self-importance.
Brett McKay: And I think we’ve all encountered those people who take themselves really seriously, but because they take themselves very seriously, it’s hard to take them seriously.
Rebecca Newton: Yes. [laughter] It’s… Yeah, sometimes I walk away from a conversation thinking, “I never wanna see you again.” But that happens rarely, I think most people in the world are not like that, but I… We all know. And to be fair, a lot of the time, I don’t think any of us are perfect, and we all have a gap between our intention and our impact. So when people sometimes are demonstrating what I call adverse gravitas, and I have the opportunity to coach some of these people, [laughter] they’re not intending to have a negative impact on others. Well, for the most part. And so the challenge for all of us is to think about the impact that we wanna have on other people, like what’s our intention for impact, continuing to get feedback, because the higher you go in organizational life, the less feedback you tend to get until probably you hit the very top and then you get more than you could handle. But we have to keep open and actively seeking out feedback, and then only then can we really understand this gap that we all have between our intention and our actual impact.
Brett McKay: Well, speaking of…
Rebecca Newton: Which I personally know.
Brett McKay: Right, well speaking of impact, you’ve developed this impact model that you walk clients through to help them be… Have more gravitas. So can you walk us… Sort of give a bird’s eye view of what this impact model is?
Rebecca Newton: When people are wanting to increase their gravitas, it’s often, at least initially they’re thinking of it as being about how they show up in important meetings or big presentations. And so the impact model is designed to help people have a practical tool to walk through. So the first thing is insight, which is thinking about, “What do I believe about this topic? What’s most important? And what insight do I want people to take away?” So it’s thinking about your kind of goal for that meeting or presentation before you start thinking about the content of it and what you’re gonna say.
So insight is the first one, then motivation, and it’s asking yourself, “Right, the people I’m about to encounter, whether that’s two people in a meeting or 500 people at a presentation I’m about to give, what’s their motivation, what’s driving them, what’s most important to them right now?” And so if you don’t know the answer to that question, then you know what work you need to do before the meeting to find out, to really understand your audience. And again, all of this comes before thinking about what you’re gonna say.
And then the third part P is perception. So this is checking in on how does my audience perceive what I’m… The topic I’m gonna be speaking about right now. What do they think about this? What do they know about this? How might they see it differently to how I’m seeing it? So that’s the work that you do beforehand is thinking about where is my audience right now and what impact do I want to have on them? Then, you get into what you’re thinking and what you’re gonna say. ‘Cause what I find… The reason for this is that often clients will just wanna jump straight to what they’re gonna say, so we focus on our messaging rather than the purpose of our messaging. So just those three points can help people to make sure they’re on the right track in terms of how they’re framing things and what they’re getting people to take away.
So then A is advocate. What do you want to get across? What’s most important? What do you want people to remember? I think of it as kind of what are your three sticky messages? You know, the saying around, “If you can’t say what it is that you’re trying to get across in one minute, then you still have more work to do.” And only then is the C for content. So at that point, I get people to start writing out what it is that they’re going to communicate. And it kind of… It’s counter-intuitive. It feels quite frustrating, but actually, if you go through that process, it only takes around 10 minutes to answer each of those questions. Okay, it might trigger some other conversations you need to have, but there’s not too much work to do and it definitely changes the content that people write or plan to speak.
And then the last one is T, that’s about the technique. And it’s important that technique comes at the end because the kind of tips and tricks or how we present… The tone and the body language is so important, but actually it’s designed to support and to reinforce our messages rather than being the focus of our message.
Brett McKay: What I love about this model, and I think the insight that I got from it is those first three you talked about, it’s all about the audience, the person you’re interacting with. ‘Cause I think oftentimes, when people think about “I need to have more gravitas,” they go right in… They go immediately to technique or content.
Rebecca Newton: Yup.
Brett McKay: And like how can I appear more serious? That’s… You’ve gotta think about how can you impact others? What is it that they need to hear from you and how they’re perceived by you? So this is like… You can go through these questions, okay? What’s my intent? How am I perceived? What’s the motivation of my audience? You can do that if you have a presentation and really take time to think about how to craft that message based on those answers to those questions, but how do you do this on the fly?
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, great question, ’cause all of us are pulled into important meetings suddenly. I remember walking around a client office, and they said, “Oh Rebecca, you’re here. We’d really like you to come and talk to person X who was quite influential.” I was like, “Oh, hi,” as I’m walking through the door thinking, “What am I gonna talk about? What am I meant to say?” So there’s a couple of questions that I think are really important. One is… And I imagine them kind of as questions on a little sticky note stuck in my pocket. And so you pull out, what do I want them to think, to feel and to act? So what do I wanna to potentially do differently as a result of this encounter with me? So we often think about… We think, “What do I want to say?” or “What do I want them to do?”
We might be mindful of the objective, but we also wanna think about what do we want them to think and what do we want them to feel? I had the managing partner of a firm once say to me, “Oh Rebecca, I’ve never used the word feeling at work before.” [chuckle] And I challenged him, I was like, “Well, people are making decisions based on how they feel much of the time, so I think it’s worth considering.” So anyway, not to get too far into the emotions, but… So one question is “How do I want them to think, feel and act?” and then the other question just to quickly ask yourself is, “If nothing else, what do I want them to remember?” So if you’re suddenly pulled into a meeting or given an opportunity kind of on the fly, what do I want them to take away?
Brett McKay: Those are… I think those are great questions. The other thing that I like that you talked about, something you can do on the fly is instead of worrying about being interesting yourself, just be interested in the other people. Like be curious about what’s going on with them, and that can leave a significant impact on them.
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, it’s amazing how we feel pressure to perform, to be interesting all the time. And actually people love when you’re interested in them. And that sounds obvious, people know that, but it’s remembering to do it. And so one thing I’ll often do is give out… Clients or participants on kind of executive programs, I’ll give them a list of open questions. And open questions are always my least favorite thing to teach because it seems so obvious, but undoubtedly at the end of kind of spending three days with people, it’s the one thing that they always find the most powerful. So, you have to construct it in a way that is comfortable for you, but things like, what’s most important to you right now? Or on a scale of one to 10, how important is this to you? What’s one thing that’s holding you back? Or what are you finding to be really interesting in your industry right now? Something like that.
And I think if you just have two or three questions kind of up your sleeve whenever you’re meeting new people or going into important conversations then, that just gets the conversation going, people are happy that you’re focusing and interested in them. I mean, it has to be genuine. That’s the only thing, right? The interest in the other people has to be genuine. But it gets the conversation flowing, things… It also gives you a bit of time. So some of my clients will say they need a bit of time to think, they really want some space to process what’s going on, and they don’t feel like on the fly, they can come up with ideas, so getting other people talking is a great way of learning more about them, and at the same time giving yourself a bit of a breather to think about what it is that you wanna say next.
Brett McKay: Right, and if authentic gravitas is about being perceived as someone with value, that brings value to a situation, that’s a great way to show that you can bring value to somebody is like, “Hey, I’m interested in what you… Your problems, your issues. I might not be to solve it right now, but I can… I’m interested in that and maybe we can do something after we have this conversation.”
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, it definitely is the foundation of collaboration. You can’t really have meaningful collaboration if you don’t genuinely understand what’s most important to other people and really driving them. And so coming back to this notion of not being an independent superhero, it’s… That’s the basis of powerful connection, and then adding true value to other people.
Brett McKay: Alright, so we’ve talked about doing some prep work, doing the ground work, laying this foundation of being perceived as having gravitas, basically means being interested in others and their motivations, their issues, but the last part of that impact model was technique, and you have highlighted research, there are certain things we can do in our interaction, with our body language or the way we speak, that can diminish our sense of gravitas or enhance our sense of gravitas. So let’s talk about that, so what does the research say? What are things that we typically do when we’re presenting or interacting in a business setting that diminishes our sense of gravitas?
Rebecca Newton: What the research shows is the difference between powerful and powerless language, is things like using a lot of filler words or doubting yourself in your sentences, so turning your sentence into a question. Speaking too fast is something that a lot of my clients find when they’re nervous, when they’re presenting or in important meetings, they’ll really speed up their pace, and what happens when you convey this power-less language, one of the issues is that the audience senses a lack of confidence that you have in yourself, and then essentially questions, should I be questioning this? Should I be less confident in you? And then they start to also think about the speaker more personally rather than focusing on the content that they’re speaking on. So it’s difficult to avoid… To always stick with perfect, powerful language, being clear and succinct and all of that. What you can do is think about your opening and your ending.
So what I find is that when people are preparing for important meetings and presentations, they’re often very focused on the content and the majority in the middle of what they’re gonna say, but what we know from the research is that actually, people are making decisions really quickly, on how they perceive you, and so, if you script your opening, just your opening kind of three lines, the first things that you say, then you’re much more able to be clear and succinct in that, and that’s powerful language, and then it doesn’t matter as much throughout in the middle, people are already with you and following. And then I’d say again, script the end, what you’re gonna say, the last things you’re gonna say, because that’s what people take away and kind of remember of you. So it does seem counter-intuitive to people to script the opening and the ending instead of the content in the middle, because often the content in the middle is your expertise, that is the reason you’re being asked to speak about it in the first place.
Brett McKay: And so when you’re scripting the beginning and end, what should you be scripting for? What should you get across in that beginning and that end part?
Rebecca Newton: So just your kind of welcome and introduction, but also what you’re hoping to achieve in the time that you have with them today, thinking about that. And that’s where the impact model can help you as well, ’cause you’ve already done the work around what’s your goal, and where you think the audience is at.
Brett McKay: And then on the end, just sort of rehash and maybe give a call to action?
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, a call to action, but it’s even thinking about the sentences you say after that. So I was just with a woman yesterday who’s about to give this big presentation to 50 influential people and she was quite nervous about it, this is a really smart, interesting woman, and we’re talking about at the end, even saying things like, “I’m here over lunch, I’m looking forward to getting the… Having the opportunity to spend time with you, please let me know if you have any questions.” Just being clear in those moments, enables you to come across as being calm, as being genuine. Otherwise we can do things like… We can finish and say, “Right. Well, thanks, so I’m gonna hand you back over to… ” [laughter] So scripting the end is powerful as well.
Brett McKay: Is there a gravitas voice, some voices have more gravitas than others?
Rebecca Newton: I think your voice has a lot of gravitas. [laughter]
Brett McKay: Oh, thank you.
Rebecca Newton: Really, yeah, so there’s research that shows that… I did look at this, at tone is… Does a lower voice connect with gravitas? The answer is to some degree yes, but we all have our own range, and so I think what’s more important is… It’s not just about being… It’s not just about being serious all the time, right? It’s about adapting your style to your message, to the situation, and to your audience. And other research shows that we talk about adapting our words a lot, not using jargon outside of our industry, things like that, but the research shows that we should also adapt our tone. So for example, there’s a piece of research that talks about the eager tone where you’re happy, you’re excited, you’re kind of energetic, it’s probably a higher pitch, and that’s appropriate when things are good and when you’re delivering positive messages, and then needing to drop your tone to be slower to come across as sounding more serious when things are difficult.
And that sounds really obvious and we think that we would do that naturally, but the challenge is that the moments where we need to do these things that come to us naturally are the moments that normally through being nervous we fail to do that. And I personally gave a talk… I gave a talk to a big law firm years ago, and was talking about leadership, and I love leadership, I think it’s such an important topic, and so I was up there with my eager tone going on about how amazing leadership is and blah blah. But they had just been delivered some really bad news, and the audience was not in the space, and on reflection, all of the content that I said was the right content, but the way that I had delivered it just wasn’t right for the audience.
So we can do that with our tone, we can also do it with our facial expressions. You will have seen research that talks about how body language and tone actually have more of an impact on how much the audience likes the speaker than the words themselves. I’ll often say to my clients that words still do matter. If you talk rubbish, then people will notice. But one thing I see often is that when you’re asking about these kind of techniques, one thing often is that I see facial freeze. People just become very frozen in their faces when they’re talking, when they’re nervous in these big presentations, and so there’s different techniques that you can do to loosen up your face beforehand just so that you come across as your best authentic self, the real self that you want to portray in those moments.
Brett McKay: And one of the tricky things, I guess, with this technique aspect or how you’re coming across with your body language and your tone is that it requires feedback and that could be uncomfortable to hear. It’s like, “Hey, what am I doing that’s annoying you?” is basically what you have to ask, and that can be hard to get from your colleague.
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, it can be hard to get from your colleagues. I was… Some of my coaching clients, when I meet them for the first time I say, “I think you might think I look really friendly. I’m possibly gonna be the meanest person you’ve ever met.” Just in giving feedback and delivering messages that other people might not tell them. We have to make a commitment to getting feedback and to get real feedback, and one of the ways to do that is, when we ask, “Hey… ” Well, so for example, I think a useful term is to say, “Is there a way that we could work together more effectively?” Because people can often feel uncomfortable giving feedback on you individually, and if you frame it as, how could we work together more effectively, how could we work together better, they’ll essentially still give you that feedback about how you’re working and showing up with them.
And then when they do give you feedback, making sure that you say, “That’s really useful, can you tell me a bit more about it?” if you don’t understand, or saying, “That’s really helpful, is there anything else?” or “What else?” instead of justifying it or defending it. So it’s really easy to say, “Well, that’s just because… ” or, “On that day, I was dah-dah-dah,” or, “I didn’t mean it.” I think that we judge ourselves often by our intention, but we judge other people by their impact, and we have to be open to keep that door for feedback open.
Brett McKay: So a lot of things we’ve been talking about is how to have gravitas with in-person interactions. How do you do this online, ’cause a lot of our work today is done online, so how can you convey gravitas through your computer screen?
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, I think that’s… It’s a really important question. With communication, what we know is that you are more likely to misread signals and to misinterpret things the more distant the communication method. So I often encourage clients… Say for example leaders, when they start working with people, to have face-to-face where they can, at least for the initial kick-off, or to be using videoconferencing. You just pick up a lot through people’s facial expression that you wouldn’t pick up just from having phone calls, and certainly you pick up more from tone and from phone calls than you do just from emails. So we email a lot, but I think actually it’s important to make sure that we’re… When we’re working with people virtually, we’re building in regular windows for videoconferencing and for phone calls. And that sounds obvious as well, but I worked with a lot of tech companies that will laugh knowing that they don’t even use their own technology well when it comes to making sure that… It’s essential that it feels fairly face-to-face when you’re able to do videoconferencing.
Brett McKay: And then I guess just be very thoughtful when you do do those emails. Over-communicate rather than under-communicate, assuming that people will probably, likely misinterpret something if you’re not very explicit.
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, I guess so. So yes, I’d say be mindful that people could misinterpret it. I’ll often check emails… I’ll get someone else to check it, “Could this be read the wrong way? Or is this coming across the right way?” for particular important emails. The other thing is to make sure that we’re just continually open to adapting our style. Some of the research shows that the difference between people who are considered to be highly successful leaders compared to people who are considered by others to be average leaders, that up to 50% of that variance is accounted for by how versatile they are. So being able to flex and to adapt our style is really important, and that’s true in email as well. So thinking about… Some people will always be… I’m based here in Britain and there’s a lot of people who will be very formal and very polite and “Dear Dr. Newton, dah dah dah… Kind regards.” And that’s always their messaging, and I’m just mindful that it’s important to mirror other people’s styles. And that doesn’t mean that you’re not being authentic, it just means you’re wanting to adapt. So that’s especially the case face-to-face when we work with people, but even in emails, whether it’s long or short, I think we can just respect other people’s preferences for how they like to communicate and to interact and adapt our style. That doesn’t mean we’re not being true to ourselves.
Brett McKay: So one of the things we’ve been talking about about developing gravitas is focusing on the other and how you can bring value to that person, but you have this whole chapter in the book about how individuals who that you’ve found are rated as having being high in gravitas, they also take time out for self-leadership. So first of all, what do you mean by self-leadership and then what do these people who practice good self-leadership, what are they doing to do that?
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, it’s a great question, What do we mean by self-leadership? Do you know, when I first heard the term, I thought, “That’s ridiculous. Leadership is about influencing and facilitating other people, how could you lead yourself?” But self-leadership is thinking about essentially how you influence yourself. So I think it’s really about being intentional with how you’re using your time, how you’re stretching yourself, how you’re continuing to grow, how you are making sure that you’re out working your values. The difference that you can make being strategic rather than just habitual or reactive to the pressures all around us. And if we think about gravitas, coming back to this sentence of, it’s about being able to lead the room regardless of position, leading beyond authority or hierarchy. There’s really interesting research, and it’s fairly consistent, that shows that people who are able to lead others effectively are first able to lead themselves well. And in particular, it shows that they are able to… That people who lead themselves, who are good at self-leadership are able to influence others more effectively, that they are able to share their ideas more effectively with other people.
There’s a lot of different interesting research around self-leadership, that’s all very powerful. For example, they’re more likely to engage in active forms of leadership, so they’re more likely to be, say, transformational leaders than they are more laissez faire kind of hands-off leaders. So there’s a real case for thinking about yourself. So as you pointed out, a lot of the research that I did and the kind of conversations for decades that I’ve had now around gravitas have pointed to it being about how you interact and show up with other people, but some of it is just about you. Some of it, it kind of starts with you and how you are for yourself. And so there are some really important things that we can do just to make sure that we continue to lead ourselves well.
Brett McKay: And one of those things that really stood out to me was this idea of making time for thought leadership. What’s that?
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, so I call it your personal thought leadership window. I find that often people, particularly as they’re going through their careers just find it very difficult to carve out any time for thinking. And it sounds silly but that’s what a lot of people are in place to do. We need to carve out active time for thinking about things. And so I encourage my clients to take, say, about two and a half hours once a quarter, where they’re just going off ideally at the start of that quarter, ideally out of the office, just with some head space to think. To think about the season ahead, what they’re trying to achieve, what’s most important, not just what’s urgent, and then breaking that down. So if possible, having at least kind of an hour to an hour and a half monthly, or… It’s different for everybody, but just making sure you’re carving out time and knowing that that’s valuable and building it actually into your diary, but that’s it’s not just for thinking, it’s for being strategic about the kind of season ahead, whether that’s the week ahead or the month ahead or the quarter ahead.
And I find that it’s quite like running, that it… When I get out of the habit of running, I find it really difficult to go back into running. And I quite like running. I’m a busy working mom. I have three kids. When I go running, nobody’s calling me. But when I go back to running, I find it really difficult to fit in and to prioritize and to keep going. It’s the same with the thought leadership window, I find that when clients try and start carving out some thinking time for themselves, they find it difficult to put it in, but once they get into the habit of it, they really… In the same way with running, once they get into the habit of it, they really love it and almost resent if they don’t have that time anymore. Because we will often carve out time for thinking about things with teams, and that is also important, but I think that we need to carve out time as individuals as well to be thinking about how we are strategic in how we lead ourselves and the people around us.
Brett McKay: And you also talk about another time you can do this on a daily basis. So it’s really like so you can think about your days during your commute instead of listening to the news, use that time to think about your day and how you can be more impactful.
Rebecca Newton: Yeah, it’s really interesting research that shows how people can use their commuter time well. So one of the things to do, it’s called perspection, which is thinking about the day ahead. What do I wanna achieve today? What’s really important to me today? And how do I wanna show up today? If we’re talking about authenticity, the question to ask yourself is, what kind of professional do I wanna be? What kind of leader do I want to be? And on a daily basis, just remembering that and walking in. I had one leader say to me, “Rebecca, before I walk through the doors in the morning, every morning, I think, ‘How do I wanna show up today?’ Regardless of what’s going on, regardless of whether the organization is about to collapse, or there’s chaos, or things going wonderfully, whatever it is, what am I choosing? Being intentional with how I’m gonna show up today.” And so I think that’s one thing to think about, but also, what do I really wanna achieve today, what’s most important today? Just to make sure that we’re not just doing what’s urgent, habitual, or reactive.
And then the other thing is about spending the time on the way home and how you reflect. And so this really interesting research or… I think so, but I’m kind of an academic nerd maybe. So research… They did this study where they gave people all these new skills, and then for the last 15 minutes, they gave people the choice, “Would you like to keep doing, learning by doing, or would you like to spend 15 minutes reflecting on what you’ve learned?” And the researchers were really surprised by two things: The first was, how much of a difference it made that the people who chose to reflect significantly outperformed the people who didn’t, and who chose to just keep doing, and the second thing they were surprised by was how few people chose the option of reflection.
So I think the lesson for all of us is to make sure that at some point, so maybe it’s on the commute on the way home, I think that’s probably the easiest one to do, but at some point in our working day, just to reflect on the day, on how it’s gone, “What would I do differently? What does it mean for tomorrow? Did I show up the way that I wanted to today? What did I learn from today?” And that sets us in a good place. And I think that if you consider the difference that that would make over a five-year period of whether you did that or not, there’d be a significant difference.
Brett McKay: So we’ve talked about different techniques, questions to ask yourself to reflect on how to have more authentic gravitas, what’s one thing that someone who’s listening to this episode right now can start doing today that you think would provide a lot of bang for their buck to developing that more authentic gravitas in their own life?
Rebecca Newton: I think the first thing to do is to answer that question, “What kind of professional do I wanna be?” Or if you are a leader, “What kind of leader do I wanna be?” I’ve found that so many people who have said carving out even just a few minutes out of their day in the morning, or a few minutes of thinking time about this has made such a big difference. Because it also helps you when you are on the fly and you’re going into things whether you planned for or not, it helps you to remember who you’re choosing to be and how you’re choosing to show up. Because authenticity is about… I think authenticity is misrepresented sometimes, it’s not very clear what it means, it’s not about being… It’s not quite the same as natural.
We have a lot of talk nowadays about… In organizations, we say, “Bring your whole self to work,” or “Bring your real self to work.” And I think that we don’t make enough effort to break that down. And what authenticity means is being true to what you value, it’s about understanding what you really feel and what you think, but it’s about out-working your values, and none of us do that perfectly all the time, so we need to be intentional with it. So just asking yourself the question, “What kind of leader do I wanna be? What kind of professional do I want to be?” One way of doing that is to ask yourself, if somebody who knew you and worked with you was asked by another person about you, how would you want to be described? And just write down some words, how would you want someone to describe you, and being mindful of that helps us to be more intentional with the way that we show up.
Brett McKay: Well Rebecca, this has been a fantastic conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Rebecca Newton: So I have a website, you can go rebeccanewton.co.uk, or our business page which is coachadviser, A-D-V-I-S-E-R.com, and then I write on Forbes and for the Harvard Business Review as well.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Rebecca Newton thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Rebecca Newton: Thank you so much for having me. It was delightful.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Rebecca Newton, she is the author of the book Authentic Gravitas: Who Stands Out and Why, it’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about her work at her website, rebeccanewton.co.uk. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/gravitas, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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