Leader Lab: My Interview With David Burkus

January 29, 2010

I recently met David Burkus over on Twitter. He featured an interview with me at his new project, Leader Lab, and he granted me this interview so I could tell you more about him and what he is doing at Leader Lab.

David Burkus is an executive coach and a leadership consultant who has worked with clients ranging from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 executives. In addition, David serves as an adjunct professor at Oral Roberts University’s School of Business. David focuses on the areas of leadership development, leadership and organizational theory, and a strengths-based approach to leadership and professional development.

David is a graduate of Oral Roberts University and holds a Master of Arts in Organizational Dynamics from the University of Oklahoma. David is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Strategic Leadership from Regent University. David lives with his wife Janna in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What is your background and why are you interested in leadership?

I began my career in sales and marketing, first in financial products and then in the pharmaceutical industry. In any sales organization, hierarchies are ever-present and likewise the emphasis on leadership. However, most in the level of management aren’t really aware of what can be learned from leadership theories. After a few years getting to know this hierarchy, I entered graduate school part-time.

It seems like the goal of any solid graduate program in business or organizational studies is to provide employees with the theoretical basis for their malcontent. That’s pretty much what happened with me. As I began to study leadership theory, I found what corporate world told me to learn in order to become a leader completely ignored what the academic world had discovered about what made leaders effective.

This trend worried me, and continues to worry me. I saw a real need to bring leadership theory out of the classroom and into the boardroom.

What is LeaderLab and why were you motivated to start it?

LeaderLab is a community of resources dedicated to the practice of leadership theory. There’s a plethora of leadership resources out there, and the bulk of them are garbage. I blame airport bookstores. Consider this example: You’re a busy middle manager killing time during a layover and so you’re browsing through the bookstore. You’ve got $20 and a 2-hour flight ahead of you. So naturally, you’re looking for something cheap and easy to digest. Obviously, textbooks are out. Short, little business fables are in. These short books are easy to digest, but lack any real nutrients. The nutrients are in the textbooks, which are expensive and intimidating. But they don’t need to be. Leadership theory isn’t exactly rocket surgery. So to help create a more palatable but nutritious way to learn leadership, we started LeaderLab.

Originally, LeaderLab was an idea for a podcast, interviewing those who are doing research on leadership and related topics and providing another platform for them to get their findings out to the people who need to apply them. However, in the short period of time it’s been around, it’s grown into a blog with several contributors and a quarterly online journal. The idea is really to give people a variety of mediums so they can choose the one they prefer.

How does LeaderLab differ from other offerings on leadership and why should people pay attention to what you are doing?

As I said before, there’s a plethora of leadership resources out there. And the majority of them are garbage. So the goal at LeaderLab isn’t just to join the crowd. LeaderLab really is a different type of offering on leadership. LeaderLab is theory with a focus on practice. LeaderLab is intellectual without putting our nose in the air. Really, LeaderLab is the protein shake of leadership resources: easy to digest, but highly nutritious.

What do you hope Leader Lab will look like one year from now?

Above all, we hope LeaderLab is looked AT a year from now. We have a pretty lofty vision of transforming the way leaders look at theory and in order to achieve that vision, we need leaders to be looking at what we’re doing.

As far as what we look like, we envision a community of 5-10 bloggers, a biweekly or weekly podcast (currently it’s on a monthly production schedule), the quarterly journal and several eBook offerings. We’ve got our first one under way (tentatively titled “A Brief Guide to Leadership”), which is being written alongside the “Intro to Theory” blog post series.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Jim Taggart says:


    I read this post and then checked out David’s website. I have a concern wtih David’s weeping statement that the majority of “…leadership resources out there are garbage.” This is a judgement statement, based on no scientifically derived data. I would expect a more mature comment from an alleged leadership expert.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Jim, I can’t speak for David but I think what he might be saying is that most of the stuff out there on leadership is anecdotal with little empirical support. Even those books that claim empirical support often either don’t show you the support of the study design cannot support their wild claims. And as you know there is VERY little new under the sun – a lot of leadership stuff is just re-packed and sold under a different buzz word. So I have to agree with David that there is a LOT of garbage out there. I rarely read new leadership books, and there are only a few I will recommend to others.

    Thanks for sharing, Jim! Bret

  2. Jim Taggart says:

    I don’t disagree with your comment, Bret, about much of the leadership (and management) literature being repackaged. Indeed, I’m quite surprised and disappointed that many of the prominent authors, who I read almost 20 years ago, are not saying much in the way that’s new. This is actually very disconcerting because of the rapidity and volatility of global change, a time when effective leadership and management skills are sorely needed.

    There are a few solid thinkers and writers out there, one of whom is Henry Mintzberg, who teaches at McGill University in Montreal (and formerly part of Insead in France). He’s one of the few thinkers who is steeped in empirical research. Now in his seventies, Mintzberg recently released his new book “Managing.” I highly recommend it.


  3. davidburkus says:


    There’s obviously a little hyperbole in the statement “the majority of leadership resources out there are garbage.” However, Bret brings up the same point that I seek to make.

    I label them garbage because they’re the anecdotal musings of one person or another. It’s impossible to make a scientific, data-driven analysis of resources like these because there isn’t any data. As I said, garbage is a little bit of a hyperbole, but the it stays true to the mission: help persuade people to move away from leadership resources that aren’t supported by research.

    I am a big fan of Mintzberg. An article he wrote “Developing Theory about the Development of Theory” really inspired by stance on theory: useful lies.