Tech columnist Rob Walker blew taps last week for "gravitas" on a website appropriately named Yahoo! Tech.
"A few months ago, my wife challenged me to name three people in public life today who really have gravitas," he wrote. "Practically the only person we could agree on was Nelson Mandela … who promptly died."
(This guy has heady conversations with his wife!)
He went on to point out that presidents, news anchors, serious actors—these people all used to have gravitas. But now the president kicks it with Zach Galifawhatshishame, Brian Williams goes on 30 Rock, and you laughed at the very idea of a serious actor.
Perhaps you expect the editor of Vital Speeches of the Day to bewail the death of the death of gravitas as the End of Seriousness. Perhaps I'll surprise you.
First of all, gravitas was never a good thing. Secondly, it's not even close to dead.
Gravitas was always bullshit. To the extent that it implied its owner was above the shits and the giggles and nervous jiggles of the rest of us, gravitas was nothing more than a flat-out lie, and a dangerous one at that. It put leaders of institutions—or as Vonnegut rightly called them, "guessers"—in a position as Dads, and it allowed citizens to comforably revert to their familiar and comfortable role of women and children. "That's the way it is," Walter Cronkite told us, and we were grateful he didn't send us to bed without dinner.
Gravitas was a guy thing, and good riddance to it. Except that it still is a guy thing, even though now it's sometimes employed by women. And just because we don't see it on TV anymore doesn't mean it's gone. Gravitas is alive and well in companies, in universities and in the military. Do you think people cracked wise with Steve Jobs? Warren Buffet is amiable and good-humored, but does anybody put a whoopie cushion on his chair? As Harvard University's president would not say to Defense Secretary Hagel, hellz to the no.
We've lost our taste for gravitas in popular culture, but we don't live in popular culture, do we? We live at work, and most of the leaders of the institutions we work for aren't exactly begging us consider them equals. (Nor do we want to see them as equals who just happen to make ten million dollars a year.) When the CEO shows up, everybody sits up straighter, and any exceptions only prove the rule.
Where gravitas still counts, gravitas is still thriving.
What we need in our institutions and in our culture, is something like gravitas, but something more honest. Something like the relationship between readers and a newspaper columnist. Indulge me as I move these cobwebs aside.
One of the most wounding things that has ever been said to me was said by a publisher, circa March 28, 2008, a little before noon. In 1992, this guy had hired me just after college. He and others at his company had trained me, refined my mind, helped form my sensibility and promoted me to captain their flagship publication. Eventually I left to freelance but I remained a star columnist for a number of their publications.
In the middle of a financial crisis and a total change in Ragan's business model away from print and to digital, the publisher called me and essentially told me he would no longer pay me for opinion pieces. He would pay me to do heavily reported case studies on the making of successful communication programs, but he would no longer pay me for my columns or my blog posts.
"Dave," he told me in one of those sentences that plays on a continous loop in the electronic chip on my shoulder, "I can get opinions for free."
Meaning, his editors could search the communication-industry blogosphere for posts that communicators were writing for free (posts like this one) … and ask those people for permission to re-post them on the website.
What hurt me was his implication that the opinions of these theoretical strangers, and their writing, would be just as good as mine—or close enough, anyway.
What made me angry, and determined to this day to prove him wrong, was his lack of understanding of why people read opinion columns in the first place. They don't read them, by and large, looking for new ideas. They read them, usually, for something like leadership. They want to hear from someone who is anointed an expert—because she's the CEO of Ford Motor Company, because he runs the Red Cross, because she has covered six presidents for The New York Times, because he has been writing well about communication for a respected publisher for two decades.
Except in situations of extreme uncertainty—think, invasions, assassinations, epidemics and earthquakes—people don't necessarily want to be told, "That's the way it is." But they want to be told "That's the way I think it is" by someone they feel they know, and by someone who lots of their friends are reading. For 30 years, whenever something happened in Chicago, the first question was one word: "DidjareadRoyko?"
Not that Mike Royko was infallible or his opinions unassailable—he was a known alcoholic and, increasingly, a bitter man. But we knew he knew Chicago politics and culture as well as anybody and better than most. And we'd known him for all these years. So he was a frame of reference. His take on a thing gave a community something to agree or disagree with, to begin a conversation that would result in a collective consensus, however uneasy.
That's the kind of gravitas we need: Honest gravitas, earned by real expertise and reliability over time.
And the good news is, we have it! But it comes in different forms. Jon Stewart has honest gravitas—"honitas," why don't we call it?—and we turn to him and to Stephen Colbert at the end of the day, hoping to learn something about what we think about Russia and Crimea, or the missing Malaysian plane, or the meaning of President Obama's appearance between two ferns.
You don't have to be stentorian or aloof or humorless to have honitas. You have to be square with your audience about what your credentials are, and what is the source of your authority and the extent of your claim on the truth. And you have to be interesting, somehow.
Which means, any one of us could have honitas—and almost all of us do have it in particular situations at work and at home.
A shift from gravitas to honitas: It's happening, and it's good.
And that's the way I think it is.