For years, I resisted acknowledging that I’m a highly sensitive person — someone who feels deeply and experiences sensations like noise and smell far differently.
I interpreted high sensitivity in all the wrong ways. How could I be an HSP when I’m independent, resourceful, supportive, and, yes, strong?
Hold on there. These are, of course, some of the best qualities of highly sensitive people (HSPs). We’re willing to go the extra mile for the people we care about, we’re incredibly insightful about what’s going on for others as well as for ourselves, and we’re quick to notice and respond when something’s out of whack — all because our brains are wired for awareness, understanding, and empathy.
Looking back on my corporate career, 16 years of which were in management and leadership, I can see now that I relied on these same qualities to motivate, inspire, and manage my teams. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have been more intentional about my particular skills, and therefore a better leader. And I would have avoided some of the HSP pitfalls that tripped me up and drove me into not just one but two serious cases of burnout.
The Age of the Sensitive Leader
We’re currently in a global pandemic and a human-rights uprising, but even before the virus and the protests, the corporate world had finally started recognizing the importance of certain leadership qualities that HSPs naturally possess. There are five key leadership skills at the top of the HSP’s superpower toolkit. And, as an HSP and corporate leader, I felt uniquely positioned to help my clients better understand them.
Once I saw these qualities for what they were — both their good and ‘darker’ sides — I began teaching aspiring managers to be good leaders by helping them uncover these characteristics in themselves — whether they’re actually a highly sensitive person or not. Each of them is a crucial part of their leadership strength.
5 HSP Superpowers for Leadership
The highly sensitive person’s natural awareness of everything going on around them is the foundation for a skill you may not have been aware of, but which senior leaders and executives consider a requirement for success: strategic thinking.
The ability to see and understand what’s happening, and then extrapolate that data into options and possible consequences means HSPs can sort through choices, understand how different people will react to a situation, and evaluate plans. This is essential for the long-term strategic thinking needed in the corporate workplace — and it’s a skill most people struggle to acquire as they move into management and leadership.
Of course, that awareness can slide into hyper-vigilance, anxiety, and overwhelm. Try to stand back from what you observe, recognize that it’s not all your responsibility to manage or control, and take time to breathe and decompress — even if that’s just a few moments to walk outside and feel the air on your face.
As I define it, empathy is simply the ability to understand someone’s point of view. It doesn’t mean you agree — it just means you understand.
And the HSP’s brain appears literally to be wired with more of what’s called “mirror neurons” — which I call “empathy neurons” — than the non-HSP brain.
When you as a leader get someone at that deep level of understanding, really seeing their point of view, you have a wealth of information at hand. You can use that information to present your request, coach their behavior, and generally inspire them to do their best — all in the ways they’re most likely to be receptive to.
The pitfall, of course, is taking that understanding too far. I made the point earlier that empathy is just understanding. It’s not agreement, and it’s certainly not tipping over into taking on another person’s burdens, allowing yourself to get sucked in emotionally, and being too “nice” when someone isn’t performing appropriately. Sometimes leaders have to be firm, and in the end, employees respect and even appreciate the manager who doesn’t let people cross boundaries.
That sense of empathy leads into the third quality of fairness, which is not about treating everyone exactly alike. (That’s equity.)
Not everyone on your team wants to be coached, corrected, or rewarded in the same way. One person’s delight in a standing ovation from the team is another person’s overwhelm and embarrassment. One person’s acceptance of firm criticism is another person’s descent into shame. And so on.
The HSP’s awareness of people — that sense of empathy that comes naturally to them — helps facilitate an instinctive sense of what’s fair: how each person on their team will respond best in different situations.
It might seem like there’s no pitfall here, but of course there is, and it’s the HSP’s tendency to leave themselves out of the fairness equation, becoming over-vigilant in taking care of everyone else at their own expense. This is one of the short routes to overwhelm, exhaustion, and burnout. If you start feeling resentful because you’re paying attention to everyone else’s needs — whether at work or at home — that’s a sure sign that you need to step back and ask yourself what you need. And then give it to yourself!
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The ability to communicate well is essential for good leadership. And because of the HSP’s awareness, empathy, and sense of fairness, this is a real superpower for them.
The nuances of word choice, syntax, and tone come naturally to the HSP, who uses these tools to motivate, coach, inspire, reward, and lead their team.
What’s the flip side? Over-thinking, especially in situations that might lead to conflict, such as providing corrective feedback, negotiation, or managing disagreements. The HSP’s strong aversion to confrontation and conflict can lead to getting trapped in over-thinking different options instead of facing the situation and dealing with it.
HSP leaders employ their natural superpowers to build a high-performing team. How? The HSP leads with trust, not control. The superpowers I’ve listed above add up to someone who inspires loyalty and whose team members are willing to go the extra mile.
This is because HSPs understand what each individual needs to grow professionally, and they aren’t afraid to listen to different ideas. As a result, the team knows their leader is looking out for their best interests, and in turn, they’re willing to look out for their leader — and one another.
An HSP leader’s ability to manage each team member as the individual that they are helps the team see each other as individuals as well, which improves team communication and collaboration. And the leader’s strategic insights, when shared with the team, create focus and a sense of purpose.
Just be sure that, in gaining recognition for your team, you remember that you are their leader. Don’t abdicate all the credit and give all the kudos to the team. You may feel awkward or uncomfortable accepting congratulations for your team’s performance, but when leaders stay too far in the background, they lose opportunities to grow professionally and develop their career.
Being sensitive brings a whole new meaning to the idea of leadership. And you can explore these five qualities for yourself, and discover how they’ll help you connect with your team and become a better leader.
Curious about more leadership qualities? My YouTube series, “Leadership A to Z,” contains brief (under four minutes) videos explaining leadership qualities for each letter of the alphabet. And yes, there IS one for X!