Dying to Lead: McKenna’s New Book Shares Father’s Inspiration

SPU professor examines the qualities of leadership needed from home to a boardroom

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SPU Professor and author Rob McKenna.

David McKenna, president of Seattle Pacific University from 1968 to 1982, planted some big ideas in the mind of his son, Robert. During dinner-table discussion, he would discuss the challenges of leading the university. His son, as he listened, observed an interesting dichotomy: His father embraced demanding responsibilities, yet he had also demonstrated “a healthy sense of reluctance” about holding such an important position.

Decades later, the younger McKenna — now chair and associate professor of industrial/organizational psychology — has written a book inspired by his father: Dying to Lead: Sacrificial Leadership in a Self-Centered World (Xulon Press).

“We have a paradoxical expectation,” says McKenna. “We want people who are courageous, but we also need people who are reluctant. They have the courage to face their fears, but they also have a healthy reluctance about whether they should take the job in the first place.” We want leaders, he explains, who are hopeful, realistic, confident, and are willing to say, if necessary, ‘I messed it up.’”

Most books about leadership focus on principles of leadership, says McKenna. “Those books say ‘Be this leader!’ or ‘Here is a list of leadership characteristics you should chase!’ or ‘Here’s how, if you humble yourself, it’s going to be good for your organization.’” He describes those authors as trumpeting their expertise “from the 30,000-foot level.”

This book, he says, is different: “I call it a ‘bottom-shelf’ book.”

In short chapters that include a good-humored teaching style and thought-provoking discussion questions, McKenna encourages leaders in the public and private sector — from presidents to parents, from pastors to leaders of parachurch organizations — to consider the cost of leadership. They need to understand how their actions and attitudes impact those they lead. Considering his own inspiring mentors, McKenna helps aspiring leaders avoid common, destructive errors and patterns.

Kelly Unger ’83, director of the Discovery Institute’s Discovery Society, says McKenna’s book has inspired her to lead with greater grace. “I have found that if I breathe and take time before I respond, then I don’t react in graceless ways.”

She was also impressed by McKenna’s emphasis on developing an effective succession plan. “I realized that as a leader I am only indispensible if I let it be so. … In order to develop confidence in my staff, I actually have to start entrusting them with parts of my job in which I find the most satisfaction.”

In her review for The Best Christian Workplaces Institute, Carrie Cavanaugh, who has met McKenna, writes that he “seems too young to have the abundance of wisdom exhibited in [this] book.” She concludes that he “manages to sort through all that servant leadership means in an insightful and thought-provoking way.”


By Jeffrey Overstreet [jeffreyo@spu.edu]


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Dr. Rob McKenna explains why it's important for leaders — from parents to CEOs — to have a healthy reluctance to leadership.