Our vision of leadership is 2000 years past its use-by date

What does a modern leader look like? Not that different from a Roman in a toga, despite the millennia that have passed since those robes went out of fashion

The transformational leadership we strive for today, for all its ambitions of inclusivity, is still influenced by the concept of “gravitas” – the most important of four virtues used to describe the heroic nation-conquering Roman more than 2000 years ago.

Gravitas is the ability to project weight, seriousness and importance. It described the inner quality of the soul, personal appearance and manners and it confers a sense of superiority and respect, says Professor of Business Psychology in the UNSW School of Management, Chris Jackson.

In a study, published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences, Jackson concludes our knowledge of leadership has changed little since the days of Ancient Rome. “At best, it could be argued that the current transformational leadership research owes a big and generally unrecognised debt of gratitude to our imperial past; at worst, it could be argued that little has been achieved over the last 2,000 years,” he says.

Transformational leadership focuses on how a leader’s personality characteristics influence their followers’ values, needs, morals and aspirations, so they put organisational success above self-interest.  “Gravitas and transformational leadership show quite a close overlap of meanings and descriptive summaries,” says Jackson.

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A number of modern leaders such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have gravitas. Image: Shutterstock

Leadership archetypes are stuck in the past

The similarities between what was valued in leaders then and now could explain why we are so often disappointed by those in charge, he says. We should also not be surprised that women so often hit a “glass ceiling” in career progression when the archetype leader is so masculine, empire-building and glory-seeking. “Maybe what we need to do is start rethinking about what leadership really is for the modern world, as opposed to being stuck in the past.”

Jackson says our respect for gravitas is not, in itself, a problem. The qualities it describes can be possessed equally by men and women and by people of diverse backgrounds. Words associated with the personality trait include sober, serious, grave, ennobling, stirring, earnestness, responsibility, self-control and sternness.

It is our understanding of what that looks like that becomes the problem. “I think we have this historical view that gravitas is very masculine-oriented and very glory-oriented,” says Jackson. “We tend to have a picture of what gravitas is, trapped by an older concept. It can actually be about presenting yourself in a way that makes you an effective leader – no way is that exclusionary of women.”

Queen Elizabeth II, President of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern all have gravitas.

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Our knowledge of leadership has changed little since the days of Ancient Rome. Image: Shutterstock

“We need to rethink what we mean by leadership to try and create equal opportunities instead of trying to mould women into leadership, as we mean it now,” he says. Instead, we should be moulding leadership into something more acceptable and effective in 2020.

Clowns can take charge

While there are several notable world leaders who clearly lack the trait of gravitas, they tend to be divisive or poorly regarded outside of their power bases. They don’t have the “charismatic, yet relatively sombre and graceful way of doing things”.

Someone with low gravitas may, for instance, act like a clown. “People generally underestimate their potential,” Jackson says. However, that does not mean they have to be humourless. Billionaire Virgin founder Richard Branson strikes a balance between seriousness and humour and has made it a key part of his laddish personal branding – throwing bikini-clad women into swimming pools or undertaking daredevil adventures for the cameras.

“It's about having a sense of humour that makes you look good, as opposed to a sense of humour that makes you look like a clown,” advises Jackson. If we are to have a vision of leadership that suits the times, we will have to (as a society) redefine what leadership looks like and change the values that we have associated with it. This will ensure we do not exclude people with great potential, who don’t fit the old stereotype.

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Richard Branson strikes a balance between seriousness and humour in his leadership style. Image: Shutterstock

“Because, if we're not taking the best from all areas of society, we're not going to be competitive in a very competitive world,” he says.

“We've got to start thinking about what we actually want from the society that we live in, as opposed to just blindly walking into the future. We need to create a positive future, instead of letting the future just happen from random things.”

6 elements of gravitas

  1. Dignified in conduct of duties
  2. Dignified in bearing
  3. Serious in purpose
  4. Reputable
  5. Devoted to duty
  6. Commands respect

6 aspects of transformational leadership

  1. Emphasising intrinsic motivation and positive development of followers
  2. Raising awareness of moral standards
  3. Highlighting important priorities
  4. Fostering higher moral maturity in followers
  5. Creating an ethical climate (share values, high ethical standards)
  6. Encouraging followers to look beyond self-interest to the common good

Chris Jackson is a Professor of Business Psychology in the School of Management at UNSW Business School. For more information contact Chris or read the full paper Transformational leadership and gravitas: 2000 years of no development?


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