Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself mulling over a lesson that Elsie Hillman – my former boss, mentor, client, and friend – tried to teach me over the past 26 years. It came naturally for her, but it took me years to learn…and I’m still learning.

The lesson? You catch more bees with honey than vinegar.

Elsie passed away on August 4, 2015, but not before I got to witness the greatest civic leader in Pittsburgh history accomplish things large and small by doing just that – using honey rather than vinegar. You see, Elsie’s leadership style was based on empathy, compassion, common ground, sharing (or not caring about) credit, and making room for everyone to be at the table. Elsie lived by the principle of using her resources and influence to help, never hurt. In the world of politics, where Elsie Hillman led for more than 40 years, she was always able to stand for someone and never against anyone.

Here are just a few examples of how Elsie Hillman used more honey than vinegar to get things done.

It was the year 2000. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) was about to install “Jersey” style cement barriers on the Fort Pitt Bridge. This would have blocked the first, magnificent view people entering through the tunnel get of the City of Pittsburgh. Elsie brought everyone (and I mean everyone – from business, to labor, to foundations and religious leaders) to the table.

As it happened, some members of the group got publicly nasty over the issue with then-Governor Tom Ridge, who was also a dear friend of Elsie’s. After a few weeks, Elsie convened a meeting with the Governor and the group, wherein Elsie apologized profusely to Ridge (and then leaned over to a friend and whispered, “What are we apologizing for again?”) Elsie knew that the right thing to do was to apologize and move forward.

But the barrier story doesn’t end there. Pittsburgh had to come up with a new idea that would satisfy PennDOT while preserving the iconic view of the city. Elsie, having engaged the city’s universities as part of her efforts, called on Carnegie Mellon University to develop a “Pittsburgh” barrier that kept everyone happy. But instead of taking credit for the idea, Elsie took it to the Governor and the local leaders so that they could arrive at the same solution at the same time. Problem solved. Safety and beauty restored – all by using honey rather than vinegar.
Elsie Hillman Portrait

Another example. The year was 2003, and the City of Pittsburgh had just declared bankruptcy (and went into ACT 47). Earlier in the year, at the request of others, Elsie pulled together a large, diverse group of influential, powerful people with different (and, at times, opposing) views on how to prevent the city from going bankrupt. She asked a well-respected, yet tough leader to head the effort. While the committee fought through ideas and proposals, they ultimately came to a common sense, compromise solution. However, at the time the Pennsylvania General Assembly wasn’t buying the plan.

Frustrated and ready to give up, Elsie Hillman instead turned the defeat into positive action. When she heard the City of Pittsburgh would have to close all of its swimming pools and recreation centers (where free food is distributed to thousands of hungry children), she rallied the troops, reached out to the legislators and city council members who opposed the earlier financial plan, and said, “Here is something we can work together to fix.”

Elsie’s empathy and compassion for the city’s children and older citizens who relied on the pools, plus her willingness to use honey rather than vinegar – led to Save Our Summer (SOS ’04), an effort that raised $1 million and developed a plan in three short weeks to keep as many pools open as possible. Some believe that this act helped ultimately bring a solution to the city’s financial crisis.

I could go on and on – like the time she disarmed her political opponents by throwing a surprise Steelers party right before the 1996 Super Bowl at the Republican State Committee. Or the time she named everyone else to leadership positions in the 1988 George H.W. Bush campaign and realized there was no role left for her. She wasn’t bothered by unintentionally “writing herself out” of the campaign because, like everything in her life, it was all about getting good results by using that trademark honey.

Attracting more bees with honey than vinegar is a lesson I will always try and remember – and one which I insist we at Denny Civic Solutions use with all of our clients. Sometimes you can get a quick win using vinegar, but rarely does it last as long as something built on compassion, cooperation, and common decency.

To learn more about Elsie Hillman and her incredible life, please take a minute to visit the website and information we helped put together at www.elsiehhillmanfoundation.org.