10/9 – The Highly Sensitive Integral Leader
August-November 2015 / Feature Articles
Tracy M. Cooper, Ph.D.
This paper presents a view of emergence as an integral leader in the community of individuals who have the personality trait sensory processing sensitivity, aka: highly sensitive people or HSPs. Written from a first person point of view I specifically recount the organic pathway that eventually led to my emergence as a leader in the field of HSP research and leadership as it relates to the release of the documentary movie Sensitive – The Untold Story.
“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” – Viktor Frankl.
My journey began in 2008 when I decided to return to college at the age of 43, but, in reality, began much earlier as a young child when I nurtured my sense of boundless curiosity about the workings of the world, and my imagination, with books, comic books, and literally anything with the printed word attached to it. I even was one of those odd ducks who studied the backs of cereal boxes in the morning, observed students in school with a mixture of interest and trepidation as I felt very keenly the myriad of differences in temperament in each person, and spent a great deal of my time wandering about on my bicycle. The depth of mind, creativity, and curiosity I possessed innately motivated me to remain forever on the fringes as an onlooker, but rarely a participant. Partly this was due to my highly sensitive temperament, which predisposed me toward deep thinking, high empathy and emotional responsiveness, a tendency to become overstimulated at times in certain circumstances (like crowded situations), and a nose for subtleties others overlooked in their haste. But, it would not be until midlife when I knew myself well enough and understood that my inner journey could potentially become woven with my outer journey that I realized my potential as an integral leader with something to say and contribute.
An Integral Beginning
My return to the official college world found me online at Fort Hays State University where I decided to complete a bachelor of general studies. This choice was made more to acquire the credentials I thought would help me alter the course of my adult life, which had to that point entailed many career changes as my inner world of emotions, quick responsiveness, and need for creative challenge and meaning found no significant place to call “home.” College felt like home in a sense because the inner world of the introvert I treasure so much could find expression in the coursework with the online format providing a freedom of expression aided by simple time to think before speaking and where my deep conscientiousness could be recognized.
Finding myself with a certain freedom to choose from among many courses from across the liberal arts spectrum I found myself learning about astronomy, sociology, and the history of jazz. I had had previous experience in college with serious interests in fine art and early attempts at business management and computer information systems. The latter of which floundered due to sheer boredom and obvious mismatch. Sociology especially intrigued me as did psychology and I soon explored numerous variations in the inner and outer worlds, but my focus seemed to stray back to my beginnings as the son of blue collar parents from small town Missouri where people seemed to largely remain stagnant in their lives and often fall prey to alcoholism and other vices. In my innocent view I was at a loss to understand interpersonal issues such as poverty, spousal abuse, pessimism, and depression. Yet, I had grown up seeing dysfunctional human beings around me who seemed to blend, yet contrast starkly, with the other individuals for whom life seemed to have worked out reasonably well. As I neared the end of my bachelors program I began to question would it be possible for me to presume that I could pursue a master’s degree?
As the first member of my family to graduate from high school and now to graduate with an undergraduate degree I felt fully the fact that I was in uncharted territory for my genome, yet I seemed to possess confidence in my abilities having experienced great success in my written work throughout my undergraduate degree. At the commencement ceremony the master of ceremonies asked all of the first generation graduates to stand and be recognized. I did and felt a sense deep in my heart that what I had achieved was momentous, but was not half of what I was capable of. I stood in line prior to the ceremony intently studying an individual wearing doctoral robes. His sleeves had velvet stripes and his hood displayed multicolored stripes denoting his school of study. Topping off the ensemble was a plush hat with a gorgeous golden tassel. I knew at that moment I wanted to be that guy!
“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations” – Peter Drucker.
Following graduation I had already applied for and was accepted to Fort Hays State University’s Master of Liberal Studies program. I began the program with renewed confidence, but felt a sense of anxiety that I would be able to indeed match up to the demands. As it turned out I was exactly the kind of broad-based individual who would do well in such a program. In the MLS program I chose to follow a social science route and expand on my budding interest in poverty studies and what I came to realize is resilience research. The coursework called into question many notions I held and I slowly came to an awareness of cultural conditioning, social stratification, and a view through the sociological lens that partially answered some of the burning questions I had about human nature.
By the end of the MLS program I had written a culminating paper on the psychological effects of “escaping” poverty and designed an online class exploring psychosocial dimensions of identity. In retrospect this period of work allowed me to formulate a tentative vision for the work that would ensue in the Ph.D. program I decided to enter in my hubris and self-acknowledged penchant for academic punishment. Much to my surprise I also encountered a major health scare at this intervening time when a cancerous tumor was found in my left kidney, which necessitated the removal of that organ entirely. Fortunately the outlook was excellent due to the tumor being caught at an early stage before it had had a chance to spread. During that period of extreme anxiety I reflected on my life to date and decided to enroll in that Ph.D. program that I had been contemplating and go for broke. I felt like the second chance in life I had been granted should be respected and honored by consciously choosing to transcend every self-imposed limitation I had experienced to date.
The Pacific – Pacifica!
Before my master’s hood had even had a chance to gain a wrinkle from being folded and stored I was in a plane for the first time in more than two decades flying to San Francisco, in route to Pacifica, California to attend my first residential intensive at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Arriving at the Pacific Ocean I breathed in the salt air and absorbed the energetic reality of the magnificent waves as they lapped and crashed against the beach. I felt energized, happy, and alive! Meeting my cohort mates, some 40 of them, all gentle, highly intelligent souls, I quickly felt a sense of comfort and belonging I had searched for, but not found in many years.
My fellow Ph.D. students were of all ages, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and religions. We had everything from a wonderful Franciscan priest to a Universalist reverend to completely spiritual beings with no affiliation. Interests ranged from education, healthcare, and climate change issues to creative, spiritual, and social justice-oriented topics. I felt right away that these lovely individuals were integral in a way I had always aspired to. Many had already built successful careers, some were in career transition, and a few were searchers like myself. All valued the synergistic relationships that formed buoyed by often fascinating faculty members all very interested in these new arrivals. It would have been very easy at this point to have crushed all hopes of succeeding in a doctoral program with harsh expectations and arrogant demands, but this was an alternative institution founded initially as an institute of Asian studies eventually becoming an institution devoted to merging the best of East and West while focusing on real-world, cutting edge topics and supporting students existing way out on the perimeter of thought. The support and liminal spaces created became pivotal in encouraging the next portion of my journey to integral leadership: the topic.
“Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.” – Vince Lombardi.
If the MLS program at Fort Hays State had cracked open the door to emerging awareness of existing social paradigms the depth and breadth of the doctoral program at CIIS broke it wide open and revealed the inner darkness of a society at war with itself continually shoving the parts of itself it no longer valued into the shadows, only to have them peek out and assert themselves through projection. We inhaled Jung, breathed out Slater, and imbibed Gebser. Consciousness, social constructionism, art, and rigorous research courses all fused with deep connections planted and nurtured among this budding community of scholars. What was this integral studies all about anyway? How about transdisciplinarity? Would we live up to what seemed like a monumental task, the crafting of a dissertation?
Chief among those concerns was the development of a topic. The topic was what everyone asked each other at these week long intensives, “what’s your topic again?” Usually met by a concise explanation most of us hoped would suffice, or at least sufficiently confuse so as to ward off other questions. Somewhere in the symbiotic stew of a host of swirling topics I latched onto the personality trait introversion and felt it sink in deeply into my being. Yes, this was who I was, had always been, and might always be, at least from what I had read. Somehow, though, it didn’t quite satisfy my curiosity or how I felt I had experienced life. I knew there was more and found it when a book was recommended to me early on by a fellow student. The book? The Highly Sensitive Person, by Dr. Elaine Aron.
At first I recoiled as I read about “cried easily,” and put the book away. I didn’t cry easily, I felt very deeply and was easily “hurt,” but that usually brought on anger or irritation more than tears. Did I consider myself a fairly emotion-based person? Yes, absolutely, and as I reread the book several times I came to embrace what Dr. Aron was explaining about the complexity of this new trait. Not only was it emotionality, it was also creativity, a depth of mind unusual in the rest of the population, high empathy, and a sensitivity to subtleties. I knew as an artist that I saw and felt things very differently and had gotten quite in touch with the part of myself that could wander in the woods looking for the twisted tree clinging to a cliff, the asymmetrical boulder or hay bales that suggested figures. But, the question begged an answer: was I a highly sensitive person and could I live with this reality?
The Highly Sensitive Person – I Am!
After spending some time reflecting on the learning and tentatively contemplating how being an “HSP” had affected my life I came to the comforting, secure realization that I indeed was an HSP. In fact, I was one hell of an HSP and an INFJ to boot! This realization explained so much and, for the first time, I no longer questioned “what’s wrong with me?” I knew there was, in fact, nothing wrong with me. More so, I felt an inner pull to follow this path to wherever it led, to base my dissertation on this subject as little research existed. I finally whittled the concept down to something more specific and chose to study HSPs and careers. The impact of being an HSP in a world built for non-HSPs had trampled me underfoot and passed me by with its conventional expectations of conformity, fulfilling mediocre social roles, and subscribing to a “herd” mentality that had always left me cold and feeling lost. My role was somewhere beyond convention with a pathway that was murky and unclear, yet passionately compelling and demanding of my life energy. I knew devoting myself to this “fringe” topic would not wear well in the conventional world, but it pulled me in head and heart with no promises other than much work that had the potential to empower millions of other HSPs worldwide.
Finally free after completing comprehensive examinations I dived headlong into a qualitative study of HSPs as I attempted to ascertain how they experienced their careers and how being an HSP had affected their prospects combined with their highly individual choices. I was astounded to learn how familiar their stories were to my own and how they had struggled with boredom, frustrated creativity, and finding a place in a world of round holes when we were square, hexagonal, and every other shape except round. The complexity my study participants communicated to me struck my heart deep and I often felt their suffering keenly and knew I had to make this study count, I had to craft something worthy of their trust and soulful narratives.
Ending my study at 35 HSPs I shouldered the mesmerizing task of making sense of 35 printed transcripts laid out throughout a living room now devoted to serious scholarly effort. Patterns soon emerged suggesting entire categories with each category containing subthemes and complexities I felt a deep responsibility to capture in their essence and vitality. Now sensing an ownership of this study and foreseeing the potential to write one or more books I carefully heeded the advice Elaine Aron had given me when we had met via Skype and discussed how to construct the most useful study. Finally arriving at a total of nine distinct themes I wrote the final dissertation and successfully defended it in July of 2014.
By this time I had matured a great deal emotionally from this multiyear journey and emerged as an evolved, passionate scholar with a love of deep research and a mission to create a well-crafted book that would exemplify the results I had surmised in the dissertation, but for a more general audience.
“A good leader leads the people from above them. A great leader leads the people from within them” – D. Arnold.
Proudly wearing the three little initials that a classmate had said “suddenly improves everyone’s hearing” I contemplated how to go about assuming my role as a thought leader in the HSP community. Entering a liminal space post-dissertation I free-floated for a few months contemplating how best to translate academic speak into something more palatable and accessible to an audience who may have no familiarity with psychological terms. In an ironic twist I found that my coming late to the academic role meant I had not become too entrenched in speaking in obtuse and ambiguous ten dollar words. Further, I had a penchant for being able to break down complex topics into easily understandable segments aided by my new experience as a college teacher. Facing small classes of military members on an air base I taught sociology, marriage and family, and diversity courses. These experiences complemented the doctoral teaching assistant work I had done while still in the Ph.D. program during which time I had formed an identity as a knowledgeable and empathetic “TA” who students knew they could count on for help with their beloved topics. All of this new experience combined with newfound and hard-won credentials propelled me to finish first in my group and strike out on my own writing “the book.”
“Please feel free to call on me if I can be of service to the HSP community,” I had said to Elaine Aron. She responded a few months later with “we want to interview you for the new documentary movie we are making about HSPs!” In November of 2014 I found myself again on a plane bound for San Francisco and an interview with the originator of the sensory processing sensitivity trait. Would I freeze up? Would I come across as completely weird? What was I doing? There is a certain anxiety that combines with a rush that comes from taking on big and scary new endeavors. I had learned that, in addition to being a highly sensitive person, I was also a high sensation seeking person. Far from being a thrill and adventure seeker I identified more deeply with experience and novelty seeking, a certain amount of disinhibition and a strong susceptibility toward boredom. These combining, sometimes overlapping traits, fueled me with a twin need for the rush of doing something new combined with a cautionary instinct to think it out well and observe, but now was the time to emerge from the shadows and stand up as what I now knew myself to be: a highly sensitive, high sensation seeking man with something to say!
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Tracy, would you talk about HSPs and careers?” Elaine Aron asked from one side of the camera, shielded from the extremely bright lights. I was off and running! As if in a dream the words flowed out from somewhere and amazingly they sounded credible, even to my ears. “Tracy, you conducted a follow up study after your dissertation study, is that right?” Elaine asked. “Yes.” From behind the camera a conscientious Will Harper, the director of the move coached, “Rather than a yes/no answer, would you say more about it so it’s a complete answer?” Aha, of course! Retake, “Tracy, you conducted a follow up study after your dissertation study, is that right?” Elaine asked again. The new explanation flowed out as if prerecorded and delivered by a practiced and confident public speaker as did the subsequent 60 minutes of questions and answers.
Lunch with Elaine
Post interview it was decided that Elaine and I would retire upstairs to a dining room with a view of Tiburon, San Francisco Bay and, on a clear day, the Golden Gate Bridge. On this day it was foggy and pouring rain incessantly which left Elaine and I inside discussing intently the research I had conducted over a cheese sandwich she shared with me, a mix of whole nuts, and fruit. I smiled silently to myself as I enjoyed this interaction knowing that I had arrived at a point of respectability in the world’s eye that my father, who had passed when I was 15 and he 49, would have been elated by.
Elaine was warm and genuine and supremely engaging. I felt very privileged to be there representing this work and discussing ways to move ahead in the research and personally. I realized that my next task was to write that book and get it out before this new movie premiered. Over the winter and into the spring I struggled with writing chapter by chapter, sometimes reordering the structure and, at times, deleting passages entirely. Finally hitting a stride in my writing I plowed through to the end and thereafter spent weeks tweaking words and thoughts, often adding material only apparent in retrospect. Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career was released in July of 2015.
The Premier of Sensitive – The Untold Story
September 10th, 2015 – Venue: The Legion of Honor Museum – San Francisco, California.
My birthday! I celebrated 49 years and awaited the premier of this long-awaited film from my home in Ozark, Missouri. My wife, Lisa, and I would view the premier via a livestream from the theater. The event begins with preshow interviews with researchers and others who appeared in the movie. The movie is prefaced by a quick introduction by Elaine after which the lights are dimmed and the movie flickers onto the screen to an audience of expectant HSPs from around the world in addition to the 350 people in the theater. As each aspect of high sensitivity is discussed along with supporting science I reflect on the role I have assumed and the long journey is had been to get here. When my first speaking part pops up on the screen after some 30 minutes I feel a rush of sensation as this shy, sensitive, creative, always on the outside observer is suddenly front and center and representing what he knows. I am speechless, all smiles, and filled with emotion as my three speaking parts eventually unfold on the screen and the movie concludes.
Integral Leadership for the HSP
“Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” – Henry Thoreau.
Following the premier of the movie I spent several days considering the implications of how millions of HSPs and non-HSPs will be affected by this wonderful and informative movie. I reflect on my new role as spokesperson for this trait and advocate for those who are still on the pathway to better understanding themselves. I have been consulting with HSPs for many months now on career issues, teaching more college classes, this time at Baker University in a master of liberal arts program, and moving forward with ideas for new research and new books. I feel a critical mass of three books that need to be brought into being, each with supporting new, original research. The first, on HSPs and career, is already out and in the minds of HSPs, the second is already underway and will address the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person, the third? The third book will directly address the highly sensitive male and provide a needed resource for making it acceptable to be highly sensitive and male in a society that does not seem to value sensitivity and espouses an extremely restrictive, unhealthy notion of what it means to be a male.
Reflecting on the becoming of integral leadership I feel there are several key aspects of being an HSP that translate quite successfully to leadership that encompasses and honors, both, the deep inner life and an outer world of interacting individuals each with unique potentialities and temperaments. The highly sensitive leader is:
- Interested in developing the leadership capacity of each person through non-hierarchical, self-determining approaches where appropriate.
- Deeply empathetic with an intrinsic ability to “read” the emotions of another person and “feel’ when an individual or group is balanced and at ease.
- A superb planner owing to the deep thinking consisting of a reflective and contemplative capacity that explores ambiguity, ascertains options, and creatively surmises long-term implications.
- Notices subtle details others might miss entirely that uniquely qualify HSP leaders as meticulous, deeply conscientious individuals with a keen eye for detail.
- Innately creative in ways that go far beyond producing an end product as creativity permeates all they do.
- Focused on building the capacity of the community of individuals in their employ as well as continued, holistic development of their own inner person.
- Concerned with fairness in all business dealings, from employee compensation to customer service, and ethical business practices.
- Interested in the more complex implications of doing business in a way that solves real-world problems and raises the consciousness of all people and is not focused on the mere stockpiling of profit.
- Committed to engaging themselves in meaningful projects with real impact and importance in the world.
- Very likely your most conscientious employee.
“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” – Colin Powell.
The highly sensitive leader is not:
- A strict hierarchical leader interested in leading from above.
- Focused solely on the profit motive or exploitation of natural and human resources.
- Interested in engaging their significant capacities in trivial or superficial projects or working with superficial individuals.
- Suited to work that is repetitive, boring, or monotonous.
- The kind of individual one wants to attempt to exploit or manipulate as HSPs pick up on subtle energies much faster than others and may react accordingly.
- A stagnant leader one assigns to a no-growth position and expects them to remain.
- Interested in poorly planned projects or hasty decisions not based on reasonable and rational thought processes. HSPs may be deeply intuitive and prefer to build in long term strategies.
- The sort of individual one demands insights from on an instant basis. HSPs need time and space to think, reflect, and consider carefully, but when they have worked through an issue you can be assured they will have the deepest insights.
- The extraverted social butterfly you might like in all of your managers, but when they do speak you should listen.
- Interested in being the center of attention. This is overstimulating for many HSPs and they prefer to work somewhat behind the scenes. This is not always the case and many HSPs do extremely well as “performers.” Remember, though, if they perform they will very likely need downtime to recharge.
“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of being.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Some of the deepest thinkers and innovators have been presumed to have been highly sensitive people, based on the historical record. A highly sensitive integral leader would combine a deep self-knowledge with a wisely considered and commiserate breadth of knowledge about the external world in all its grand complexities. HSPs, in a real sense, are the ultimate integral practitioners because of our deep, rich inner lives, compassion for others, sense of mission usually resulting in committed conscientiousness, and innate creative dispositions based in an intrinsic sense of curiosity about the world.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu.
The highly sensitive integral leader is uniquely poised to make an impact on the 21st century as the changing cultural landscape often values complexity, inclusiveness, and greater equality for all. In my experiences as an emerging highly sensitive integral leader in the HSP global community I often pose the question to myself “what is the goal in raising awareness about HSPs in the world?” My inner reply is because it seems obvious to me when I view world events that too many groups are still constrained and controlled by consciousness-destroying ideologies and ways of being designed to perpetuate unequal, unfair, and unsustainable economic and social models. The goal, then, in raising awareness of the personality trait sensory processing sensitivity is to help others become empowered in personal ways that can lead to greater well-being that can spread to our families, our communities, and, to a greater extent, the world.
When we leave behind oppressive socially constructed roles and modes of being and begin to decide consciously who and what we will represent in this brief moment of life we begin to truly live and cease to impose the will of controlling ideologies on our brothers and sisters. If being a highly sensitive integral leader should mean anything it’s embodying a visionary, compassionate, creative, self-created way of being that is autotelic, synergistic, and in line with enhancing and building the inner and outer capacities of others to encourage strong, equitable communities where all individuals may reach their full human potential.
About the Author
Dr. Tracy Cooper is the author of The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, an educator, and a consultant helping highly sensitive people in career transition at his web site: drtracycooper.com. He holds a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Integral Studies in Transformative Studies and is currently working on a new book addressing the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person.