Leading with Empathy

Andrea Pohlmann

This blog is written by Andrea Pohlmann, marketing and strategic consultant and Past Chair of Hamilton HIVE. Leading up to the STEEL Conference, we'll have a guest blogger write us a piece about each of the Pillars of the conference. Enjoy the following blog about Leadership, and find out more about the conference here.


I was told from the time I was young that I was a born leader, and that I had so much potential to do great things. For a lot of my life, I didn’t really know what that meant.

Today I’m tasked with writing about leading with empathy, and while I could spend paragraphs waxing and waning about what empathy is and what empathy means, instead I’m going to talk to you about my experience with great leaders and trying to be a great leader - right here in Hamilton HIVE. 

I have spent the last four years as an executive with the HIVE, first as secretary, then vice chair, then chair, then past chair. Each year, I learned something about leadership from all the impeccable people within this organization, past and present - and I want to share some of those nuggets with you. Leadership is one of those topics that gets really trite, really fast - so I’m going to do my best to write this blog with a lot of heart, and a lot of guts.

Not-so-coincidentally, that’s also my leadership style. But I digress - here are the top four lessons I learned about Leading with Empathy in my four years with Hamilton HIVE. 

  1.  Support the people around you when you can, lean on them when you need to.

    Leadership is about guidance, not dictation. I learned this early on, but still later than I maybe should have. Supporting the people around you makes the whole team stronger. If they feel supported in their tasks and in their team, then the work they do will be better. In the same way, one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned was that you need to trust your team, and lean on them for their strengths - for exactly the same reason. Your work will be better for their strength and support, too.
  2.  No one is right all the time, and you need to listen to other people’s opinions.

    This was a tough pill for me to swallow. Those who know me know that I can be stubborn, insistent, and defensive about my ideas and my reasoning. One of the hardest lessons for me to learn was that no one is always right (not even me!) - and that listening to other perspectives helps get to the other side of a problem more quickly, and usually with a better outcome. I think, something that goes hand-in-hand with this is the idea that asking for peoples’ opinions doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing, or that you are any less sure of your opinion. 

  1.  It’s a ‘no’ on status quo.

    Just because something has worked doesn’t mean it will work. The number of times I've tried to just do the same thing as someone before me only for it to flop in my face? I can’t count, but I can tell you the number is high. Don’t do things just because other people did them. Listen to your team, read the room, understand what’s going on in your world before you try to replicate something that worked in previous years. This one is exceptionally prevalent now, but can be extrapolated to so many different scenarios. 

  1. The goal of leadership isn’t to create more followers, but instead to inspire more leaders.

    I borrowed this phrase from Kyle Datzkiw, who is also a HIVE Alum and one of the best people I’ve met in my time in this organization. A true leader, Kyle taught me an abundance of lessons in his time as treasurer, but this one is really important - and especially poignant to me, right now. He said it to me the other day, in jest and about something unrelated, but it sparked in me something undoubtedly true: one of the hardest things about being a leader is knowing when to step back and let someone else take the reins. As I come upon the end of the last year of my term, I can’t help but hope that my leadership in this organization has helped to inspire leaders of the future.

    This past week, when I talked to Felicia Van Dyk of the YWCA Hamilton, she told us about the motto “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. That resonated with me as well. Leadership is about more than spearheading projects. It’s about showing empathy to those around you, it’s about learning with your team and helping them to grow. Leading by example, and being the kind of leader you want to see other people grow into, really is the right way to do it. 

There’s one more piece of advice I’m going to leave you with to finish this blog post off: start now. Being more empathetic and being a better leader are both things that take practice. They’re things that you teach yourself to do by doing. Be mindful of your gut reactions versus your empathetic ones. My friend Dallas Lombardi always says that everyone is a leader, and I agree with her - but it’s up to us to choose what kind of leader we’re going to be. I’m forever grateful that Hamilton HIVE has given me so many leaders to look up to over the past few years, and I hope that years from now people will think of me as a leader in the same way.