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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Agenda - Reviving Gravitas in Leadership: Lessons from Ancient Rome for CEOs

CEO Agenda

Reviving Gravitas in Leadership: Lessons from Ancient Rome for CEOs

Dr. Louise Mahler

Crisis management – or lack of it – has been making headlines recently. Internet Brands, a global organisation with presence in 40 countries and parent company to WebMD made news in the worst possible way earlier this year when their internal video encouraging employees back to the office was leaked to the media.

The video showed clips of the company’s leadership team positioned in generic, sterile office settings – their delivery, emotionless, defensive and often tense – conveying messages that were interpreted as threatening and intimidating. As the CEO Robert Briscoe stated: “We aren’t asking or negotiating at this point. We’re informing how we need to work together going forward.”

The backlash – internal and external – was immediate. The executive team was described as ‘lacking empathy’ and ‘unsympathetic to employees’ wellbeing.’ Others focused on the video’s ‘menacing air’ which implied that people could be impacted professionally or lose their jobs.

Similarly, who can forget the public outcry following Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin’s response to the network outage in November last year. The media widely reported on the CEO’s defensive stance, highlighting her reliance on practised, scripted lines. With repeated key messages, supported with non-answers, her approach exemplified a lack of adaptability and genuine engagement in addressing the crisis.

We’re witnessing a crisis in leadership communication

With the constant changes in how we work, including flexible hours, working from home and changing attitudes to management hierarchies, building trust and connection with staff and external stakeholders has become more important than ever for business leaders, yet the skills for leadership communication are in steep decline.

Trust for community leaders and politicians has eroded since 2020, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, making the challenge for CEO leaders even more acute as they try to address today’s problems. The World Economic Forum has defined ‘leadership and social influence’ as essential, projected to be among the top 5 upskilling priorities by 2027.

Historically, leaders like Andrew MacKenzie, former CEO of BHP, have been lauded for their authentic, visible and empathetic approach during crises. As MacKenzie’s coach, I witnessed first-hand the impact of such genuine communication.

But many leaders have forgotten how to communicate. Increasingly, they appear to be scared to appear in front of others, reflected by their controlled messaging, tense delivery and reluctance to front audiences.

Increasingly, we see CEOs and leaders relying on pre-scripted messages often repeated and delivered in a voice and manner that seem incongruent with the content. While structured messaging ensures consistency, it might not always convey the urgency and empathy required in a crisis.

In this age of digital immediacy, when feedback floods in through social and digital channels, the response is too become even more closed, defensive, tight lipped – and so the cycle continues.

What leaders today can learn from the leaders of ancient Rome

Over 2000 years ago the leaders of Ancient Rome led a civilisation of military, political and social institutions. Leaders like Marcus Aurelius, Cicero and Julius Caesar had incredible influence and power.

What they really had was gravitas. In the world of ancient Rome, gravitas was the manner of trust and respect cultivated by capable, strong leadership.

The orators of ancient Rome commanded the attention of thousands across vast squares and amphitheatres without the use of a microphone. Re-enactments show that they could reach and captivate over 6,000 listeners without today’s technology.

Their secret?

Orators mastered the art of using gestures, vocal modulation and physical presence to engage and influence audiences.

Imagine having that kind of presence in today’s town halls!

Then and now, gravitas is about communicating in a way that builds trust and respect. It is more than the words we say. It is in the subtle cues, the powerful pauses, the expansive gestures and the voice that speaks with authority.

Rethinking our model of leadership communication

These days, we find ourselves in a world where one of the key elements of rhetoric – delivery –  has been completely overlooked. To develop gravitas again, we must bring delivery back into the way we speak, work and lead others.

To do this, we need to:

  • Shatter communication paradigms that have led to our current outdated, ineffective model of communication (No more ‘Don’t move! Stand behind a lectern! Read verbatim from a document!’)
  • Reinstate the body as core to delivery. It’s time to use physical space and movement in our communication to build trust, respect and engagement with audiences.
  • Refocus on our voice in delivery. Roman orators assessed their venues and situation, throwing their voices and altering their tone to reflect the message they were delivering. Let’s make our voice congruent with our content and body language.
  • Re-engage gestures into our communication. Gestures are identified as a critical part of Roman Rhetoric. The esteemed ancient Roman orator Quintilian identified 24 major gestures to convey messages, mood and meaning. The skill of gesture offers unmatched opportunities for creating better communication when delivering in any environment.
  • Practise, practise and then practise some more. The amateur practises until they get it right; the professional practices until they can’t get it wrong. This is your path to embodying a leadership presence that resonates.

In an era where speakers are often encouraged to stand behind podiums or lecterns, the art of using physical space and movement in communication – effective delivery – is becoming a lost skill.

It’s time we redefined the narrative. Communication isn’t about hiding from audiences, reading from a script or appearing defensive when we engage with critical audiences.

In today’s leadership context, leaders need to create exceptional connection with their stakeholders to engage and inspire fast. In ancient Rome, gravitas was considered an essential key to winning over an audience and communicating effectively. The wisdom of the past holds the key to transformative leadership presence today.

Dr. Louise Mahler’s latest book, Gravitas: Timeless Skills to Communicate with Confidence and Build Trust is available from 28 February 2024. Mahler shows how this ancient virtue can help you rethink modern communication and transform your presence and impact as a leader today. Gravitas unpacks the essential speaking skills, strategies and techniques that great leaders use to communicate effectively. Visit www.louisemahler.com.au/gravitas to find out more.


Written by Dr. Louise Mahler.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Agenda - Reviving Gravitas in Leadership: Lessons from Ancient Rome for CEOs
Dr. Louise Mahler
Dr. Louise Mahler is a global expert in communication and body language and a leading international keynote speaker. Louise is a highly sought-after media commentator and is well known for analysing the communication and body language of public figures and celebrities (including Scott Morrison, Anthony Albanese and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex). She is regularly interviewed on Sunrise, The Today Show, SBS, the ABC, and radio stations across Australia. In addition to also being regularly quoted in print media, Louise has recorded 36 videos for the Australian Financial Review and was chosen by IBM as a key creative source worldwide. Highly qualified, Louise has a PhD in business focusing on leadership communication and in 2023 was named an Adjunct Professor of Federation University Australia.


Dr. Louise Mahler is an Executive Council member at the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn, for more information, visit the author’s website CLICK HERE.