5 Powerful TED Talks on Leadership
Being a great leader requires an assortment of skills and life experiences. For a great leader, a masterful example of leadership skills could mean being authoritative and in control one moment, to passionate and kind the next. Versatility, communication, and self-awareness are just a few leadership skills that aren’t talked about enough, despite being some of the most impactful.
To bridge this gap, there are many resources that leaders at all levels can use to improve their own leadership skills, like TED Talks on leadership. TED Talks have featured thoughtful presentations on a variety of topics from guest speakers like Bill Gates, Julian Treasure, and Robert Waldinger, but there are also plenty of TED Talks on leadership that offer different perspectives on what it means to be a leader.
Regardless of if you’re trying to coach your football team to the playoffs, inspiring your robotics club before a competition, or preparing your art program for a big contest, we’ve collected five TED Talks on leadership that will offer you new insights and perhaps even spark a realization that leads to new heights.
Many of these leadership TED talks have mental health and mental conditioning as a throughline, which we believe can be an underrepresented aspect of leadership skills. That being said, they address different aspects of this and offer different solutions, all of which are worth mentioning.
HIGHLIGHT: Focus on what you can control, then you’ll never be the subject nor the administrator of unjust criticism, which is the key to not only living a better life, but for making the world we inhabit a better place as well.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy that originated in ancient Greece, but its core principles have persisted for centuries, even inspiring some of the greatest leaders of the modern era like Nelson Mandela.
So, what is it? In short, stoicism revolves around the belief that, while we can’t control the world around us, we can control our responses to it. It stresses the importance of being in tune with the world around us—including other people.
Dr. Massimo Pigliucci states in his presentation that, “For the Stoics, it followed that the best kind of human life you can actually have is one in which you apply your reason, your intelligence, to improve social living, to improve everybody else’s life.”
Dr. Pigliucci notes that the core virtues of stoicism consist of living one’s life with justice, courage, and temperance—all tenets that, as leaders, you’d want to instill in your students. But, one of the more “difficult” to incorporate aspects of stoicism is what Dr. Piglucci says a little later in his TED Talk:
“We should try to walk through life by internalizing our goals, not worry about the outcomes, because those are outside of our control, but worry about our intentions and our efforts, because those are very much under our control.”
Broadly speaking, our culture values winners and winning above all else, whether that be winning a state championship, getting a big “1st place” ribbon, or closing a major business deal. But especially at the lower levels, when working with students, it’s important to remind them that there is more to life than just wins and losses.
Dr. Pigliucci even uses a metaphor of an archer in a competition who, despite doing everything right, they miss the target, for one reason or another. “You do not attach your own self-esteem to the outcome; you only attach it to what is under your control, to your attempt. In practice, in today’s life, these can change the way you look at pretty much everything.”
Not only is this approach great for young students, but it can also help you as a leader keep everything in context, and prevent you from being unnecessarily stressed. To paraphrase Dr. Pigliucci, if you control everything you can, then you’ll never be the subject nor the administrator of unjust criticism, which is the key to not only living a better life, but for making the world we inhabit a better place as well.
“The idea is to be not perfect but just better than you were yesterday, one little step at a time.”
HIGHLIGHT: “I will admit it’s obvious when schools start teaching children that there are some problems that don’t have a correct answer. Stop giving them lists of questions, every single one of which has an answer.”
Next on our list of TED talks on leadership has probably the most eye-grabbing title and has equally head-turning stories and lessons to match. Here, economist Tim Harford tackles this idea of, “the God complex,” an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution.
Just generally speaking, such a belief could be harmful in really any context. But, when you put it in this frame of a group leader overseeing a program made of students, the consequences can become that much worse.
“We tend to retreat and say, ‘We can draw a picture, we can post some graphs, we get it, we understand how this works.’ And we don’t. We never do.”
According to Harford, the best way we as people and a society can overcome problems is with humility, trial, and error. “And the moment you step back from the God complex – let’s just try to have a bunch of stuff; let’s have a systematic way of determining what’s working and what’s not – you can solve your problem.”
The world is ever changing, so if a particular part of your system isn’t working anymore, then as a leader you should be open to changing that part. Or, changing the whole system itself if you have to—having that versatility is an example of leadership skills that don’t get the attention they ought to.
Sure, this sounds obvious in theory, but as Harford points out, this is not the case in the American education system.
“I will admit it’s obvious when schools start teaching children that there are some problems that don’t have a correct answer. Stop giving them lists of questions, every single one of which has an answer. And there’s an authority figure in the corner, behind the teacher’s desk, who knows all the answers. And if you can’t find the answers, you must be lazy or stupid. When schools stop doing that all the time, I will admit that.”
To benefit both group leaders and students alike, Hartford says everyone should be open to trying new ideas, even if they don’t ultimately work. Throughout the talk, Hartford continually references Dr. Archie Cochrane’s experiences in the medical field as they relate to the point, and they’re some of the most interesting moments of any entry on this list of leadership TED talks.
Just these two talks alone could contain invaluable information for a group leader somewhere. To help make sure these TED talks on leadership are seen by the people who need them, share this article on social media; you never know what problems someone is facing.
HIGHLIGHT: In a largely white-collar society like the United States, usual rewards and incentives are no longer good motivators. Instead, instilling meaning and purpose into tasks will yield better results.
While motivating a group of people is one of the most well-known leadership skills, that’s always easier said than done. Sure, we can think of methods that might motivate a group but, as author and career analyst Dan Pink puts it, these ideas are actually more harmful than helpful.
The cause? Functional fixedness; a cognitive bias that doesn’t let us see new uses for old tools. Pink dives deeper into this issue and gives examples of how it occurs in our schools, our jobs, and in various other places around the world.
Mr. Dan Pink points out that while incentives (bonuses, commissions, etc.) sound like the answer, research has found that it’s just the opposite, that these incentives actually hinder people trying to overcome functional fixedness.
“What’s alarming here is that our business operating system – think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources – it’s built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks. That’s actually fine for many kinds of 20th century tasks. But for 21st century tasks, that mechanistic, reward-and-punishment approach doesn’t work, often doesn’t work, and often does harm.”
In some cases, Pink says, this approach can work, but only for simple problems; not so much for more complex and open-ended ones.
“If-then rewards work really well for those sorts of tasks, where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to. Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind; that’s why they work in so many cases.”
To inspire and motivate students to not just complete a task in front of them, but also to become successful citizens in their adult lives, a new way of motivating students will be needed. Fortunately, Pink spends the last two-thirds of his presentation offering a solution.
“It’s built much more around intrinsic motivation. Around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, they’re interesting, or part of something important. And to my mind, that new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.”
Mr. Dan Pink defines each of these elements for his audience, giving leaders a better understanding of how they can inspire their group to thrive and achieve more. For that, and the fact that Mr. Pink is quite an entertaining speaker, this absolutely deserves to be recognized as one of the better TED talks on leadership.
HIGHLIGHT: Mindfulness and setting aside your emotions are vital mental skills that can improve one’s performance in any field, not just sports. However, they require a high level of emotional maturity and self-awareness.
Any time you get to hear a Super Bowl champion’s thought process is always a treat; you get to see what makes them tick, what helped them get to where they are, and what they lean on in tough times. For Russell Wilson, it’s about staying neutral.
“I started thinking about a car. You know how when you drive a car, you’ve got [a] stick shift and you want to shift to neutral? You go from first gear to second gear, all the way to fifth? You’ve got to know how to shift to neutral. And I needed to shift to neutral immediately, before I crashed.”
The nine-time Pro Bowl-er says sharpening his mental skills is what helps him bounce back from any rough situation, and it’s this message that makes this entry one of the best TED talks on leadership. As Wilson himself says, athletes spend hours working on the physical and tactical aspects of the game, but not usually the mental, and this can be applied to programs of all natures.
As a leader, it’s important to remind yourself and your students that everything you do relies just as much on the mental aspect as the physical.
“One of the questions I always get asked about neutral thinking is this: ‘Does that mean I don’t have any emotion?’ And I always say, absolutely not. Yeah, we have emotions, we have real-life situations, we have things to deal with. But what you have to be able to do is to stay focused on the moment and to not be super emotional. It’s OK to have emotions, but don’t be emotional.”
Wilson’s lesson here reflects a level of emotional maturity that is typically not associated with students, so the more aware of this a program is, the more likely it is that that program will grow in a positive way.
HIGHLIGHT: As we collectively push through the COVID-19 pandemic, group leaders need to be aware of potential mental roadblocks for students who may not understand it themselves.
Last on our list of TED talks on leadership is also the most recent one! Released in September 2021, organizational psychologist Adam Grant talks about the impact that COVID-19 has had on our minds, and how we can overcome this “psychic malaise” that has seemingly permeated everywhere.
“I wasn’t depressed. I still had hope. Wasn’t burned out, had energy. Wasn’t lonely, I was with my family. I just felt a little bit aimless and a little bit joyless. Eventually, I remembered there’s a name for that feeling: Languishing. Languishing as a sense of emptiness, stagnation and ennui.”
With many states rolling back their pandemic restrictions, leaders will have to address similar effects in the coming months, perhaps even longer. “Going back to normal,” is a phrase that is thrown around, but what if that isn’t possible for some students? What if this feeling continues to linger?
“Two decades of research show that languishing can disrupt your focus and dampen your motivation. It’s also a risk factor for depression because languishing often lurks below the surface.“
Being able to recognize when a student is not feeling like themselves, and helping them navigate through it are vital leadership skills, and will likely become more important as we continue to navigate life post-pandemic.
One tool to accomplish this? Flow.
“In the early days of the pandemic, researchers found that the best predictor of well-being was not optimism. It was flow. Flow is that feeling of being in the zone…It’s that state of total absorption in an activity. For you, it might be cooking or running or gardening where you lose track of time and you might even lose your sense of self.”
By giving students something to focus on (something MEANINGFUL), they can find a purpose that perhaps they were missing before, which echoes the themes of all the other leadership TED talks listed above.
Dr. Grant shares anecdotes from his own life story and how he went about overcoming the languishing that had plagued him since 2020, which can help inspire leaders to do the same both for themselves and their students (and he does it with nice, consistent humor to boot).