Quiet Leadership


The year 2020 has been a chaotic and turbulent time for our world with a raging pandemic, political upheaval, stresses from unemployment or underemployment, food insecurities, wildfires on the West coast of the US, and a general sense of anxiety and real concern for the future, as well as the present.  Highly sensitive people have not been immune to these events and have had to question their role as more observant, deeper thinking members of the species.  In order to represent an advantage our trait, sensory processing sensitivity, seems to require a few aspects to be in alignment:

  • HSPs need mentoring in order to develop their capacities and skills,
  • choice of career or how we choose to express our ideas,
  • and how we embody leadership all factor into the overall effect we may have on the course of events. 

In this brief article, I’d like to suggest that aligning those three elements will allow us to be seen and heard in meaningful ways.

The Importance Of Mentoring

First is the issue of mentoring for HSPs.  Many HSPs, as we know, do not come to sufficient levels of self-awareness or understanding of sensory processing sensitivity in an accurate context until midlife.  Even at midlife it can be difficult to navigate how to express the trait in significant ways that go beyond just surviving and coping.  Much of this has to do with the early environment that HSPs experience, since we know from vantage sensitivity theory that HSPs will do better than average in positive environments and worse than average in negative ones.  Many HSPs from supportive backgrounds may not even know that they are highly sensitive and may be unaware of the trait except the emotional sensitivity component. 

Highly sensitive men likewise may face the additional difficulty of overcoming cultural notions of a masculinity that they do not identify with or wish to embody.  For many HSPs, mentoring in the form of working with skilled coaches and patient mentors is the best way that they can make the most progress towards being able to confidently embody the trait in the world.  This mentoring should ideally begin at a very young age but owing to the still emerging awareness of sensory processing sensitivity, let alone cultural acceptance, many HSPs do not enjoy enlightened parenting. 

Skilled mentoring for HSPs would take the form of three main categories:

  1. Developing an awareness and accurate understanding of sensory processing sensitivity, based in the scientific literature.
  2. Constructing a personal context for one’s life with sensory processing sensitivity as a strong and enduring influence.
  3. Adapting one’s life to sustainably balance the needs of the individual with the requirements of one’s career or choice of meaningful work.

Self Care Supports Leadership Development

Beyond skilled mentoring there is the necessity to develop and adhere carefully to a self-care practice that includes setting and enforcing adequate boundaries, maintaining good health through an appropriate diet, exercise, and sleep routine, and renewing and refilling oneself through being in nature, meditative practices, and spiritual growth and development.  Once the mentoring is in place, HSPs can grow into their own personal power and begin to show up confidently in the world in ways that others will come to acknowledge and appreciate.

How we choose to spend our time in this brief life is an important point to consider in that culture has one set of neat, predefined boxes for us to fit ourselves into but the demands for autonomy, meaningful work, and sustainable conditions compel us otherwise.  HSPs may find that self-employment is their best option, or they may opt for working from home while still employed or some hybrid arrangement that allows them to stay in balance while fulfilling their responsibilities.  Other HSPs may find traditional work to not be their preferred outlet for how they wish to influence the world.  In those cases, perhaps they start non-profits or volunteer their time for worthy causes that they support and wish to further.  For example, in the current year, we have seen the absolute necessity for food banks to distribute necessary food to millions of affected people in the US.  Long lines of cars wait for boxes of food they would otherwise not have.  HSPs could do an incredible job of gathering resources, making plans for distribution, and enlisting help to make it all happen.  Choose your pick of outreach efforts and meaningful work can happen in a myriad of ways.

Sensitivity And Leadership

This leads us very naturally to how we wish to embody leadership.  I propose that HSPs are more likely to embody a style of leadership that I call “quiet leadership” than any other form.  Quiet leadership is based in the idea of servant leadership, which is founded in the notion of leadership that is not egocentric or seeking to rule through aggression, intimidation, or coercion.  The quiet leader slowly and patiently builds up social capital that may be spent later when the need arises.  Social capital comes through building networks of reciprocity by helping others as they need it and supporting their growth and development.  The more we build others up, the more willing they are to reciprocate when we need a favor.  Quiet leadership supersedes faulty popular ideas about “alpha leaders” that rule through fear, excess volume, and exploitation.  The true “alpha” will always be the one with the greatest social capital and the one who creates environments in which others do their best because they are autonomously and intrinsically engaged and interested in their work. 

Find Your Way Into The World

Considering the extreme challenges of 2020, it is tempting to wish away all of the tragedy, to imagine that we will all get back to “normal” once vaccines have been distributed widely, and to set it all aside too quickly.  Many of the quiet leaders, though know that challenging times will await in every year, in every organization or corporation and small business and that it is the combined and cumulative knowledge and experience that they have gained, along with their ability to pull together divergent and diverse resources and capacities that truly makes a difference.  HSPs have a tremendous and meaningful contribution to make to the world in each generation and in each new challenging situation.  Our deep, thinking, thorough planning, strong intuition, and innate creativity makes us the most conscientious and conscious leaders our species may produce. 

If you are a highly sensitive person, I challenge you in 2021 to consider finding appropriate mentors who can guide and steer you towards developing a high degree of self-awareness of sensory processing sensitivity that is grounded in the science, understanding and appreciating the strong influence that sensory processing sensitivity has played in your life and will continue to over time, and taking the steps necessary to adapt your life so you can be at your best when and how you choose to show up in the world.         

Image: Shutterstock

About Tracy Cooper

Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is an international consultant on high sensitivity, an expert in the areas of highly sensitive people and career, the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person, the highly sensitive man, and highly sensitive people and creativity.. Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career; Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person; and Empowering the Sensitive Male Soul. Dr. Cooper appeared in the 2015 documentary film, Sensitive-The Untold Story, along with many other researchers and experts. He is an Assistant Professor in Baker University’s Ed.D. program in Leadership in Higher Education. Dr. Cooper regularly works with individuals in career crisis and transition, as well as corporations interested in diversity and inclusion initiatives for HSPs, innovation and HSS/HSPs, and frequently speaks on subjects related to sensory processing sensitivity and sensation seeking. Connect with Dr. Cooper at his website, his Facebook page or his Facebook page for sensitive men.

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