One of the arts of great leadership is learning to draw from the lives of those who have led well. Just such a leader has recently passed from this life and I want to tell you a bit about him and of the principles he built his life upon.

His name was Alan Merten and he was, until a few years ago, the president of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He came to that role from an academic career in the computer sciences that landed him as a dean at the University of Florida and a dean and professor of information systems at Cornell.

He arrived at George Mason University in 1996. In those days GMU had about 24,000 students, a budget of $220 million, and a faculty of about 4,000. It was a good state school. By the time Dr. Merten left in 2012, the school had risen to more than 33,000 students, had a budget of $880 million, a faculty of almost 10,000, and had become a national university of standing with stunning academic achievement.

It was largely the doing of Alan Merten. I hope you’ll read more about his life, but here are some of the maxims and practices that led to his success.

  • He rebranded the university. He used the men’s basketball program to do it. He hired and funded and cajoled. It paid off. When the GMU Patriots appeared in the Final Four in 2006, applications to the school soared.


  • He was approachable. Faculty, parents, and students praised how friendly he was and how he took time to listen. He became the warm center of that massive school, changing its culture and thus its trajectory. Lives were transformed.


  • He blessed. A mentor had told him that no matter how busy he became, showing up for just fifteen minutes at an event would “bless” it. Dr. Merten did just that and thousands of times. This inspired people, made sometimes mundane events significant, and turned the entire institution toward success.


  • He had a short, clean message. He could give it in fifteen seconds. It’s how he won presidents, professors, parents, and a generation of students to his cause. He knew what he had to say, said it well, and said it briefly.


  • He expected frustration. He knew there would be opposition to everything he attempted. He anticipated it, prepared for it, and answered it. Never did it make him bitter or resigning.


  • He was flexible. He knew how to pivot, how to take advantage of opportunities when they arose, not months later. This led to celebrated victories.


  • He surrounded himself with smart people. He also invested in them. He understood that if he developed people well they might leave. He said it was the price you paid for making people better. He made GMU far better in the process.


  • He knew when to wait. Most leaders charge ahead, are in full accelerator mode all the time. Dr. Merten knew that a wise man has to know when to wait and see what a problem looks like a day or two down the road. He knew that critics would see this as vacillation. He also knew that his record of good decisions would win his critics over time.


  • He chose a good wife and welcomed her role. He said his wife “helped me extend my reach.” She made both him, and GMU, better with her gifts and she is revered for it by the GMU family to this day.


  • He taught by principle. “Merten Maxims” are repeated everywhere today, from courtrooms to Congress, from public schools to the offices of university presidents. It is because he was a master of the pithy bit of wisdom, the memorable inspiring phrase. It reproduced his spirit and vision in the lives of others. Our entire nation is better as a result.


There is far more and I hope you will pursue it on your own. The bottom line is that Alan Merten was one of the great leaders of our generation and we will all lead better by pondering his life and example.