Let My Love Open the Door: Reflections for State Leaders

Emerging Leaders Program Milbank Fellows Program
Focus Area:
State Health Policy Leadership
Public Sector Leadership Consortium

When everything feels all over
Everybody seems unkind
I’ll give you a four-leaf clover
Take all worry out of your mind

Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door
To your heart

Let My Love Open the Door, Pete Townshend

Long days and evenings. Constant public scrutiny. Little positive reinforcement. Guilt about not doing enough. Guilt about doing the wrong thing. Whirlwind budget cycles. Political trade winds. Low social valuation for policy nerds. The impossible job of explaining what you do to friends and family. Who would want all of this?

State executive branch leaders and policymakers, that’s who.

Because it’s all of that, but also the opportunity to live a mission. To influence systemic change. To eliminate disparities. And to hear back from actual people that tangible things that you have done have relieved stress, enabled access to care, improved economic security, and helped people to advance.

We rise by lifting others.
~ Robert Ingersoll

In that this work is so heart-based, I have been reflecting on my year working with a brilliant and awe-inspiring group of state leaders while at the Milbank Memorial Fund, and specifically, on several aspects of love and its role in helping people to continually grow and to remain vital in their leadership roles.


The Greek concept of agape, the selfless sort of love, is one of the origins of our current concept of charity. This is also an element of the Jewish practice of chesed, which as I understand it reflects an encompassing love of humankind.

We all often make reference to empathy, but do we really reflect on and embody it? In this whimsical but also pithy animation, Dr. Brene Brown urges us to be attentive to the differences between empathy, which involves connection, and sympathy, which does not. In particular, she builds on practices proposed by English nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman of the University of Southampton, who has suggested that each of these are essential aspects of empathy:

  • perspective taking
  • staying out of judgment
  • recognizing emotion in others
  • communicating back the emotion that you see

I know what it’s like down here and you are not alone.
~ Dr. Brene Brown

Each of these aspects of empathy is worth thinking through and practicing, but I’d like to focus on the first, which is vital but also involves some risks. As Dr. Brown captures it, perspective taking involves not only acknowledging another’s frame of reference, but also “recognizing their perspective as their truth.” This feels particularly important now as many of us work toward building the capacity to understand differences in others’ experiences and opportunities, particularly related to race, sexual orientation, and disability.

A recent conversation with one of the leaders in our Fellows program was a good example for me. Both of us were comparing notes on searching out genealogical records of our respective families. After I said, “It’s amazing how far back you can go and get public documents,” she told me directly, but without judgment, that given her African-American ancestry, there was a hard stop in the late 1800s.


An important companion to empathy is openness to new experience and learning, captured in the ancient Aramaic, Christian-associated word ephphatha. Dr. Rich Callahan, Milbank consultant and professor at the University of San Francisco, has shared this concept and practice over the course of our collaborative work with state leaders, representing both executive and legislative branches from all around the US, and folks all along the ideological continuum. Rich’s useful shorthand for this practice is that we should start from a posture of inquiry and pursue a heterodoxy, as opposed to orthodoxy, of ideas. Rich’s interest and devotion to people sets such a model for me, a native introvert who is not always confident about making those connections.

Openness also involves creating opportunities for development of personal insight and fluency in the concepts and practice of equity. Dr. Dwinita Mosby Tyler, founder of The Equity Project, helpfully and compellingly speaks to creating “spaces of grace,” as compared to “safe spaces.” The practice, as I hear her describe it, gives people license to enter conversations where they are, grasp new concepts and perspectives, and evolve. This seems useful given the hard lines and correctness-orientation of some of these discussions. Dr. Mosby Tyler also recommends an exercise to build connection through which people fill in this simple phrase: “I am _______, but I am not ________.” I hope that you try it with a group. It is revelatory.


Diverse spiritual traditions including the Buddhist practice of self-compassion and the Greek concept of philautia, embrace care for self. While some may feel that this is either a bit hackneyed or too “woo woo” for them, the idea that caring for oneself is a prerequisite for more meaningfully connecting with and caring for others is compelling to me. And self-care can translate in whatever way feels true to you.

So, what will it be?

This question makes me laugh a little because during the pandemic, I tried to be intentional about meditating. Meditating is not something that comes naturally to me. I mainly spend time thinking about how my mind is wandering from the clear space it is supposed to be entering. But I choose a nature meditation from The New York Times and try to do it daily. One day I was participating remotely in a legislative hearing, our big Maine Coon cat by my side, when both of us became very distracted by the sound of chirping birds. He rushed over to the window seat and carefully scoped the backyard but there was not a bird in sight. I then went off video for a minute and checked around the house, in the unlikely event of a bird inside. But nothing resolved the matter until much later, when, bedeviled by continued chirping, I discovered that the meditation link had mysteriously opened in the background of my desktop, as if to say, wouldn’t it be healthier for you to be doing this right now?

My friend and former colleague in Connecticut, Fatmata Williams, dances in the basement. My wife goes mountain biking in the woods. I bake cookies in honor of my paternal grandmother, Granny Bundle, and my favorite dance track is Deee Lite’s Groove is in the Heart. What is the right type of self-care for you?

And, as the remarkable Dr. Laree Kiely of the leadership consulting group We Will queries:

What is getting in the way of taking care of yourself?

This is a powerful and necessary question. Why? Because even though we know we must and should, and we probably even have ideas of how, we just don’t take enough care of ourselves.

So, take this as an assignment: choose one thing. Dancing in the basement. Bike riding. Baking. Chats with a friend. And go do it. You deserve it, and all of us need you to take good care.

Do that, and think about all those aspects of love — empathy and openness and self-care — and continue to do the vitally necessary work that you are doing. We at Milbank see you and celebrate you for it.