Article written by: John Hughes, Recruiter of IT Leaders: CIO, IT VP, IT Director
3 Reasons HSPs Make Better Leaders
Sep 3, 2014
Carl Jung termed the trait “innate sensitiveness,” but it was Elaine Aron, Ph.D., who brought the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) to the forefront in 1996 with her groundbreaking book, The Highly Sensitive Person. Dr. Aron’s book has since sold over a million copies, and has been translated into 17 languages.
(Dr. Aron is currently working on a documentary of her work, called “Sensitive,” to broaden awareness of this trait. To learn more about HSP or to watch a trailer for the documentary, click here to jump to the movie’s site.)
I have been studying and “practicing” leadership for nearly 30 years. I’ve written a book on leadership (Haunting the CEO), provide leadership development as part of my Interim CIO practice, and help my clients hire the right IT leader for their organization. I understand leadership.
I’m also an HSP.
Okay, I suppose I should say, “Hi. My name is John, and I’m a Highly Sensitive Person.”
And, yes, it does mean what it seems to infer–that movies about baseball make John cry, as do sad songs about lost loves, and commercials about Hallmark cards and buying the world a Coke.
But there’s so much more to being an HSP than emotional sensitivity. The trait cuts much deeper. We feel a heavy connection to the world and people and events, regardless of who or what or when or where. We also carry the weight of a rich inner life within us. We observe deeply, and with feeling, and then take the time to process this information before taking action.
And we also carry a responsibility to do something with all that we create inside our minds and hearts–as if it’s not ours, but something we owe back to the world.
This emotional sensitivity, deep connectedness, and rich inner life feed an HSP’s ability to lead teams in a way that others simply can’t.
Wait! Put the tomatoes down! I didn’t say that only HSPs can lead teams, or that others can’t lead well. Not at all! What I am saying is that HSPs have inborn abilities that allow them to lead people in a uniquely richer and deeper way. (Okay, now let ‘em fly…)
Before we touch on some of those abilities, I want to clarify HSP a bit more.
We are not talking about shyness, which is a learned behavior. And while Dr. Aron’s research shows that 70% of HSPs are introverts, a full 30% are extroverts. So toss out the notion that extroverts are excluded from this special club of deep feelers. In fact, I think an extroverted HSP would pack a more powerful one-two leadership punch than an introverted one.
(I’m an introvert, proven by the fact that I’ve failed Myers-Briggs twice. I know the hang-ups I have as an introverted leader. And I know all too well how being drained by people has affected my career, versus how being energized by people has propelled others and allowed them to be more engaged in situations that I find difficult.)
So here we go. Here are three specific abilities that I believe enable HSPs to be uniquely effective as leaders:
1) The Subtleties
HSPs soak in everything happening around them, especially the subtleties that others tend to miss. HSPs live in a world of constant sensory bombardment. Words. Conversations. Non-verbal cues. Movement. Sounds. Smells. Emotions. It all gets taken in. Although we can easily become overwhelmed at times and feel forced to withdraw to the background or even leave a situation, taking in environmental subtleties is an invaluable leadership ability.
We filter and process this input, determining what is valuable and useful for that moment, and save the rest for later.
The leader that doesn’t miss much, especially the non-verbal and emotional state of a team, is better able to coach, make adjustments, and stress critical points in communication back out to the team.
HSPs are better equipped to lead because they are in-touch emotionally with their team.
2) Processing over action
HSPs naturally prefer to process input they’ve taken in versus taking action and speaking. We are more likely to fade to the background in meetings, preferring instead to listen, observe, and process, versus jumping into the mix early and often and unwittingly control a discussion or shut others down.
Team members feel more valued as they are allowed to speak and contribute freely, without the prospect of being shut down by an over-anxious leader eager to push their own ideas or move their agenda forward.
HSPs are better equipped to lead because they naturally fall to the background, allowing team members to freely speak and share and shine.
Resonant leadership (from Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., in his book Primal Leadership) is simply the ability to soak in all that a team is communicating and feeling about a situation (some verbal, but most all is non-verbal and emotional), and then being able to lead from a position of understanding and empathy.
Resonant leaders seem to say and do the right thing at just the right time. This isn’t luck or magic, it’s their innate ability to feel deeply, process richly, and patiently consider the right words and actions for the moment.
HSPs do this. Naturally.