Julia Sherwin: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Sparks Creativity: Creative approaches to developing new ways of doing business have helped to save companies money while satisfying customers. In order to get those creative juices flowing, humans must feel safe, trusted and have that sense of belonging. It’s a trickle-down effect from trust.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Julia Sherwin.

With nearly 20 years of experience focusing on external communications, Julia is passionate about creating and delivering compelling narratives that showcase the value and impact of financial and tech solutions. She is a former radio and newspaper journalist and has successfully led and executed integrated marketing and public relations campaigns for both Fortune 500 and nonprofit organizations. Julia has developed a keen understanding of trending news stories and popular business themes of interest to both business leaders and consumers, while earning regular media coverage in business, trade and consumer publications for her clients. She is focused on employee wellness and fostering motivation among teams. Julia believes empathy is perhaps the most important tool in any leader’s toolbox. She is most proud of being the mother of three teenaged children.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

When I was pursuing my Master of Journalism degree at Temple University, I worked as a communications consultant for Cigna. The company’s location in center city Philadelphia made it easy for me to get to my evening classes on the campus. I met lifelong friends there with whom I am still in touch with.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I think the most interesting story since I started my career would be the evolution of technology. We used to use large books (Bacon’s Media Directories) if you know what they are, to connect with journalists covering our industry. We used fax machines for press release approvals, and we used clunky old word processing tools for mail campaigns. I think this evolution to what we have today with apps, social media, AI, and text-based tools have revolutionized our industry.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Curiosity: Without a doubt, this is a critical skill for success in any discipline. I’ve always asked questions of colleagues, sought mentors who I admired, and read everything I could get my hands on about my particular industry.

Resilience: The communications field can be stressful, and working for large corporations or smaller, family-owned businesses comes with unique challenges. I have been part of corporate restructures, the uncertainty that comes with a global pandemic, and shifting regulatory environments. I’ve learned that challenges are inevitable, but having a mindset focused on resilience is essential.

Agility: People, practices, and processes are ever changing. Businesses must evolve in order to be profitable. I know that my job description is subject to change at any time, and the ability to pivot at any time is a critical skill I’ve honed, especially as a former journalist. In fact, I thrive best in an environment that is always changing.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

Being a leader is a lot like being a coach of a team. I have watched my children’s coaches closely as they’ve played on numerous sports teams. Sometimes, you have to ensure there is a course correction before playing in a big game. These aren’t easy conversations, but there have been times when I had to tell an employee they were underperforming. The differentiating characteristic of a strong leader is one who can provide feedback, resources for improvement, and then additional evaluation. Everyone deserves a second chance. However, expectations should be defined clearly at every stage of the “post training” process.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

Empathy is a vital trait for humans. Period. In a leadership context, it’s even more critical because every day requires giving direction to others. If I as a leader can’t fully understand what my employees are experiencing and feeling, I will never be able to fully motivate them.

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

While both empathy and sympathy require someone to look beyond him or herself, they are fundamentally different. Sympathy is what is felt for someone in a situation that is unchangeable, such as a death of a loved one, illness or catastrophic loss. Empathy can be applied to nearly any situation in our daily lives that is challenging. As leaders, we know that many of our employees are juggling transportation and childcare responsibilities or even caring for aging parents. By being empathetic, leaders should recognize that employees may “show up” in different ways, depending on their unique life circumstances. However, empathy allows this and doesn’t demand a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

Just by taking a step back and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, as we were taught as young children, can be a practical first step to enhancing empathetic skills.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

The key word here is diversity, and it emphasizes what I said earlier. Every team member comes to their organization with different life experiences, whether physical, cultural, religious, or economic. When we as leaders embrace these differences, we can make our teams feel seen, heard, and, above all, safe. This is a critical first step in building any kind of relationship based on trust and respect.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

1 . Enhanced Communication: Leaders who exhibit great empathy tend to be more intuitive, with high levels of emotional intelligence. They are able to better connect with their teams, develop better rapport through both written and spoken communication, and ultimately this enhanced communication benefits the entire organization.

2 . Builds Trust: Employees trust empathetic leaders and colleagues more. According to an article in Harvard Business Review, “employees’ decisions to stay in a job largely come from a sense of belonging, feeling valued by their leaders, and having caring and trusting colleagues.”

3 . Sparks Creativity: Creative approaches to developing new ways of doing business have helped to save companies money while satisfying customers. In order to get those creative juices flowing, humans must feel safe, trusted and have that sense of belonging. It’s a trickle-down effect from trust.

4 . Increases Motivation: Have you ever talked to someone who just doesn’t like his or her boss? Are they motivated to do their best work? Probably not. Again, relationships built on trust and empathy will ultimately motivate your teams to do their very best work,

5 . Managing Conflict: There are no perfect working environments. Leaders must make tough decisions daily, and conflicts will sometimes arise. Those leaders with strong empathetic skills will be better equipped to recognize the viewpoints of all involved, while providing strategic direction to affect the best outcome possible.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

Today, we are truly in a time where so many are experiencing issues with their mental health. People need to talk about what is on their plates, so I ensure I do this with my team members individually, even if it’s just a 10-minute check in.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I was born on my dad’s birthday, December 14. My second child was also born on the same day, which was my dad’s 70th birthday. He was my best friend. Although no longer with us, I’d love to honor my dad by making December 14 a day where people perform random acts of kindness for others.

How can our readers further follow you online?


Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.