September 11, 2009

An 'all-in' approach to leadership: Daniel Elsener takes the reins to make Marian a great Catholic university

Marian University President Daniel Elsener gets ready to take a horse ride on the Indianapolis campus this summer—part of his preparation to fulfill a promise he made to the university’s football players. Elsener told the team he would ride a horse and lead them onto the field when the university’s new sports stadium officially opens on Sept. 19. (Submitted photo)

Marian University President Daniel Elsener gets ready to take a horse ride on the Indianapolis campus this summer—part of his preparation to fulfill a promise he made to the university’s football players. Elsener told the team he would ride a horse and lead them onto the field when the university’s new sports stadium officially opens on Sept. 19. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

In a moment, you will read the story of the “nutty” promise that Daniel Elsener made involving a horse—a story that provides an insightful glimpse into Elsener, the president of Marian University in Indianapolis.

Yet maybe the best place to start a story about the man who is determined to establish Marian as a “great Catholic university of the 21st century” is to return to the time when Elsener was a 29-year-old high school principal in Kansas who was attending a conference where the main speaker was a small, bespectacled man with a slight lisp—a college football coaching legend-in-the-making by the name of Lou Holtz.

“That little squirt came in there and he got my attention. He got everyone’s attention,” Elsener recalls. “It was this speech about leadership, and the thing I remember the most is when he said, ‘A leader has to be committed, and everybody has to know you’re committed, and it has to be without doubt and without fail.’ And then he told this story, which isn’t real, to make his point.

“He told the story of this soldier who is in Germany on Christmas Eve. He grew up in Chicago. His dad was a bad person. He drank and caroused, and he died on the streets doing drugs. There were five kids in the family, and the mother worked day and night to raise them. She worked so hard she worked herself to death. She was a saint. And now he’s in Germany, it’s Christmas Eve, and he’s looking at this picture of his girlfriend. And he misses her bad.

“So he puts his stuff on and starts walking out the gate of the base. He’s going back to Chicago to see his girlfriend. At the gate, the guard pulls a gun on him and says, ‘Halt!’ The soldier says, ‘Look, buddy, my mother’s in heaven, my father’s in hell, and my girlfriend is in Chicago—and I’m going to see one of them tonight!”

Elsener laughs at the story. Then he adds, “Holtz said, ‘That’s commitment. And as soon as we don’t have that kind of commitment and people sense it, they will not follow you.’ ”

That story reflects Elsener’s “all-in” approach to leadership, an approach that demands a similar commitment from everyone who works with him.

“There are three essential elements to leadership,” says Elsener, who is 55. “You pray, you use your experience and you use your brains. Those three things have to be in synch. Once they are, I’m relentless. And I’m not easily discouraged. I’ve learned it’s good to get a lot of input, and it’s good to listen to input, but it’s never good to freeze up. A leader is supposed to lead. I am a leader. God gave me that gift.”

That leads to the second revealing story that Elsener shares—the one about the horse and the self-described “nutty” promise he made to the student athletes.

Channeling the spirit of Knute Rockne

Elsener made the unusual promise four years ago during a meeting with high school seniors who played football and their parents. He was hoping to entice the students to come to Marian and become part of a football program that was just getting started—a plan that he hoped would increase male enrollment at the college and also create a rallying point to build spirit at the school that was started in 1936 by the Oldenburg-based Sisters of St. Francis.

There were just a few major problems with the plan.

“I got a sense they were looking at me like, ‘Hmmm, there’s no locker room, they barely have a coach on board, and there is no field,’ ” Elsener recalls with a smile. “We hadn’t raised one dollar. We had no schedule. We had nothing. I said, ‘This is going to take a leap of faith. You guys are pioneers. Pioneers didn’t know where they were going across this country. But I will tell you this. In four years, we will build this stadium. And I am so sure of that, I will lead you into that stadium, and I will lead you in on a horse.”

Even Elsener was stunned about the horse promise.

“It just came out of my mouth. That was either very foolish or a prompting of the Holy Spirit. I haven’t yet determined which,” he says with a laugh. “I think they thought if I’m nutty enough to say this, I’m nutty enough to get this done. It took on a life of its own. It seemed to light up the eyes of the recruits and their parents. They got a kick out of it.”

Four years later, the new stadium is built. It will be officially dedicated on Sept. 19 when Marian University plays its first home football game in its new stadium on campus. Elsener plans to lead the 160 Knights onto the field by riding a horse and possibly wearing armor. To prepare for the moment, he’s been taking riding lessons this summer.

“If you’re going to do something, you ought to make it big and you ought to make it fun,” says Elsener, a father of nine and a grandfather of 10. “Do something a little different. I mean, who has nine kids these days? If I’m in, I’m all in.”

He views the stadium, which will also be used for such sports as soccer and track, as a way to build community.

“I wanted to make sure this was a fun, exciting gathering point for alums, students, parents, donors and friends who care about Catholic causes, Catholic intellectual traditions and Christian witness,” he says.

Which leads to the third revealing story about Elsener—a story of the challenge he presented to people after a school Mass one Sunday.

The crossroads and crosses of life

Beyond building a football program and a new stadium, Elsener has been trying to create a new vision for Marian since he became president in 2001.

A man who had dedicated most of his career to Catholic education and fundraising, Elsener had served the Archdiocese of Indianapolis as the executive director of Catholic education and the executive director of stewardship and development. He was directing a private foundation when he was approached about the idea of leading Marian College.

The foundation was put together by a family that had sold its business for $875 million. Working there, Elsener says, he was in a nice place financially for the first time in his life. He flew in private planes, had an office in a tower building with a great view of Indianapolis, and was getting paid more than he ever had.

His reaction to the invitation to lead Marian was, “I finally have a savings account. Why would I want to do that?”

For more than six weeks, he resisted the idea, telling his wife, Beth, it made no sense to make a change. She agreed. Then as he prayed in a chapel one day, he says, “It was like ‘Marian’ screaming in my mind.” He went home and helped Beth with Sunday dinner, never mentioning what happened in the chapel. Yet as they stood in the kitchen, Beth suddenly told him he should take the Marian job.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Elsener says.

“If you look back, that was a very sleepy little college that was struggling then,” says Jerry Semler, a member of Marian’s board of trustees then and now. “The place has come to life. It shows the difference in leadership. He’s a visionary. He says a great community always has a great Catholic university. He’s sure laid the foundation, and it grows every year.”

Since 2001, student enrollment at Marian has increased from 1,260 students to more than 2,200. The number of graduate students has increased from 13 to more than 300. A 55-acre environmental learning laboratory has been established on campus, and a music center is being built. The university has also started an online nursing degree program. And on July 1, the college officially became Marian University.

“The last time we had lunch together, I told him he’s really put a new face on Marian,” says Christel DeHaan, a friend, an Indianapolis philanthropist and a donor to the university. “He’s very focused, he can articulate a vision and he doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s very determined in his pursuits of what needs to be done.”

Elsener insists that the faith which led him to Marian is the faith that continues to guide him in leading the university—which leads him to share a story about nails, hammers and crosses.

“We’ve always been Catholic and Franciscan here,” Elsener says as he sits in a conference room with the Prayer of St. Francis on one wall.

“But there was some point in our history when we didn’t want to put it in our literature because some people thought some people might be scared of coming here. I didn’t understand that. Once you’re nothing, you’re nothing. So we had a Mass one Sunday. And we had tons of San Damiano crosses and hammers and nails there. After Mass, you were commissioned to go find a room without a cross and put one up. We put up a lot of San Damiano crosses around this place.”

Elsener points to a cross on the wall of the conference room.

“This is my personal one,” he says.

Striving to make a connection

Ask Brittany Jackson for a telling story about Elsener, and the student body president of Marian University recalls the time she lined up to run in the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in Indianapolis.

“Coincidentally, he was next to me at the starting line, and he called over to me and said, ‘Action Jackson!’ ” recalls Jackson, a member of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “We were joking who was going to finish first. He said he was. He was wrong.”

That interaction is typical of Elsener, Jackson says.

“He’s friendly,” says Jackson, a senior. “He comes and has lunch in the dining hall with students. He walks around campus and comes to student activities as much as he can. He’s very supportive of all the student government’s goals, and he passes them along to the board. He also allows one student to sit on the board of trustees so we know what’s going on.”

Mostly, she’s impressed by the way he models the Catholic faith to students.

“When we have large celebration Masses, he’s always in the front row with his wife, his kids and some of his grandkids,” Jackson says. “It shows he not only teaches the Franciscan values, but he holds them very firm.”

Elsener, who is a member of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis, says he strives to make that connection.

“We are a community. We’re not just a group of people who go to school together,” he says. “I know these students, and they know me. I know our faculty. I know our employees. I know the guys who fix the flowers. I can be a human here. I play and I work hard. I can be serious, but I also know when they’re sick. I know what’s going on.”

It’s all part of the approach and vision of a person who defines himself as a family man, a relentless leader, a man of faith, and a community builder who isn’t afraid of making a commitment or stepping into a spotlight, even if it means riding a horse.

For him the vision is clear: making Marian University a great Catholic university in Indianapolis.

“Our commitment here is serious academic work, faith, community and educational wholeness,” he says. “Those are unnegotiable pillars of our university. Faith is the bedrock. We see God in everything. How can you build a great university without the faith element? How can you educate the whole person if you don’t want to talk about the ultimate questions, like, ‘Where are you from? And where are you going?’ ”

He already knows his answers to those questions. With the conviction of that soldier on Christmas Eve, Elsener keeps moving forward toward his goal—faithfully and relentlessly. †


Related story: Prayer is at heart of $6 million gift to Marian University

Local site Links: