Executive Leaders Worth Emulating: John Merrill

The Leader
John Merrill, DDS, is rated at the top of his profession, where excellence is measured in aesthetics, precision, and continuous referrals from colleagues and patients. He specializes in reconstructive and cosmetic dentistry, and as an executive leader, he directs the Carolinas Center for Oral Health, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

My Impression
He would be delighted to have you think he is ordinary; yet, I found everything extraordinary about this man. He is so highly regarded and phenomenally proficient that one might anticipate arrogance and conceit. Instead, Dr. Merrill is a disarmingly attractive combination of patient-advocate and artist-collaborator. He is all about partnering – with his patient, no less – and he operates with his personable staff in quiet, confident choreography. He is deeply and creatively all about being of service.

Notes on Early Development
He was the youngest of 5 children of Depression Era parents. Both parents earned master’s degrees and set a work-hard, core-values example for their Southern Michigan family. His parents loved and liked each other, and they parented with affection and teamwork.

At 3, John asked his mother, an artist and social worker, “Who am I?” and he proceeded on into a life of reverence and respect. John’s father-son of a minister who was the son of a minister – answered a “higher calling” when he was 30, moving to the ministry from the security of a chemical engineer’s income. Thus, his family’s faith and funding were changed forever.

Young Achiever Years
Life is all research, isn’t it? Some events have the power to continually shape Life questions and amplify the lessons learned. When he was a young man, John’s fiancée died in his arms of an aortic aneurysm. It was a stunning, heartbreaking experience. His family was empathetic, but they did not know how to react to his trauma. John struggled with the classic conflict that such a tragedy had occurred in the presence of God. Responsively, John took a year off and bicycled through Canada to the West Coast, and then through the U.S., and his 100-120 miles per day turned into his healing meditation. He felt responsible for saving people, he became a strong leader in his church and did a lot of prison ministry.

John pursued dentistry, believing from a trade and service perspective that it would support a moderate lifestyle.  Coming out of dental school, his professors marveled that John “had the hands and gifts to go anywhere.” But it was the tough economy of 1983, and he reacted by starting two dental practices, running them concurrently! After a time, he realized he was just doing “drill, fill and bill” – that he was not taking care of people, he was only taking care of teeth – and again, he sought inspiration in a higher purpose.

He began considering how he could do work that was more supportive of the patient and his practice, of himself and his staff. Also, with his inner insistence to “get it right,” he moved traumatically from a less supportive marriage to a deeply loving partnership – Brady-Bunch style – merging families and kids. He was nearing the hallowed ground.

Adult’s Years
Dr. Merrill moved professionally into far more challenging reconstructive and cosmetic dentistry, where the partnership with the patient is trust-based and the stakes are significantly higher. There, the patient is often damaged and the commitment is to the patient’s most aspirational future. Here, success takes a complex synthesis – science meets art – of keen dexterity, mechanical engineering, fine art, and high performing teamwork with the patient, lab technician, and staff. When John witnessed the emotional Life-transformations that occurred for his new patients, there was no doubt this was his territory.  Finally, Hallowed Ground…on which he is progressive today!

Some of His “Elder Wisdom”
Families, tribes and civilizations proceed with wise discernment. The Merrill household was attuned to such guidance.  Now, Dr. Merrill’s “elder wisdom” conveys such lessons of leadership each day:

  • Life is, indeed, a journey, it is not a destination.
  • Bitterness and “unforgiveness”  are poisons.
  • Anger creates a partnership with what is not helpful.
  • Leadership, like farming, profits from quality ingredients – good water, seed, soil, design.
  • Frustration informs us there is a better response to offer, and there is something to learn.
  • Hire heart, over skill; you can train skills, but the heart must be apparent from the start.

The Leader’s Signature
The adult leader who strives toward socially worthy goals, who is guided by core human values and is intent on being of service, has an energetic signature that merits emulation.

  • Dr. John Merrill’s energy comes out of his heart – inspiring the right action. He is grateful for his highly professional team – lab technician, clinical and administrative staff – for what they give. He regards each as a precious soul.
  • He is not disparaging of prior relationships, yet he clearly sees how fortunate he and his wife, Natalie, are to be best friends. (He “can’t get enough Natalie!”)
  • Now, Dr. Merrill’s outlook on his career is to look for ways to improve. He is at the top of his field globally, and he does not get absorbed in this. He appreciates what he has accomplished, but he wants to keep his career in the process rather than defining it.
  • He looks at human bitterness and “unforgiveness” as a poison. While he does get frustrated, being very angry has never been his way.
  • John has optimism and hope in life that he has never seen extinguished.

Conducting this research was encouraging. Dr. Merrill is a generous leader: He is grounded in socially worthy goals, he is guided by core human values, and his intention is to be of service. Dr. John Merrill, he is a leader I recommend for emulation.

As social beings, we learn leadership through emulation. This series profiling executive leaders worth emulating will appear here from time-to-time.

Enduring leadership manifests by vision, policies, systems and growth initiatives that are socially responsible, consistent with core human values. There is no doubt that such leadership can amplify productivity and profitability, naturally. 

Each leader profiled in this series brilliantly embodies qualities of high integrity, with strategies for leading effectively. I believe these are the kind of leaders needed in the world today.

  • Leaders who are decidedly not “all about the money.”
  • Leaders who commercially and civilly assess the worthiness of goals they engage in.
  • Leaders who are guided by core human values in all they do, including the ethical use of their authority.
  • Leaders who are exceptionally high performing on productivity, profitability and business development measures and would make any capitalist smile.
  • Leaders who make a conscious choice to be of service to others. 

As I discovered, each grew up with values-shaping experiences, and each chooses to be abundantly and authentically human. Many are pressured to pursue greedy and socially divisive strategies, and they consistently refuse.

Nowadays, examples of enlightened leadership are critically needed for emulation, to reset our world. I welcome your comments, and your suggestions to feature other leaders worth emulating.