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Top Ten TED Talks on Leadership

Since its founding in 1984, TED has become world famous for its inspirational and thought-provoking TED Talks. Originally intended as a conference for technology, entertainment, and design, TED has since grown to include a collection of talks viewed by millions of people worldwide every year.

TED Talks are short, typically less than 18 minutes. Still, it’s impossible to view all of them. Instead, start with ten amazing examples that will challenge the way you think about leadership. Speakers from all walks of life have given passionate perspectives on the topic that could truly change your world.

1) Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Simon Sinek is one of the most popular speakers ever to be involved in TED Talks. How Great Leaders Inspire Action was his first TEDx presentation and remains the third most popular across the organization’s entire catalog. Born in England, Sinek has lived all around the world and studied both advertising and law. A RAND Corporation consultant, he focuses on military innovation. He is also involved in a number of nonprofits.

In his TED Talk, Sinek discusses what he considers a pattern connecting all the great leaders of the modern era, including the Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Apple. Inspiring leaders are different from others because they know not only what they do and how they do it, but why they do something. Sinek terms this difference the golden circle and discusses how to communicate “from the inside out” by starting with core values.

2) Martin Reeves: How to Build a Business That Lasts 100 Years

Martin Reeves has given a number of informative and popular TED Talks, including this one and Your Strategy Needs a Strategy, which he expanded into a full length, bestselling book. He is a Senior Partner at the BCG Henderson Institute, one of the world’s leading business innovation think tanks and consultancies. His work has appeared in the Harvard Business Review and a variety of other top business publications.

According to Reeves, the average U.S. company lasts only 30 years. To differentiate, it’s critical to be resilient and enduring – lessons that can be learned from biological systems on all scales. Using his background as a biologist, Reeve identifies the six core biological principles that make systems throughout nature effective. He then introduces them and how they could be applied to create a business with true longevity.

3) Roselinde Torres: What it Takes to Be a Great Leader

Like Martin Reeves, Roselinde Torres is best known professionally as a Senior Partner in the Boston Consulting Group – her focus is the People and Organizations practice. Thanks to her many innovative contributions, she became the first global head of the leadership topic at BCG. Since being named a BCG Fellow in 2009, she has performed research on timeless aspects of leadership and the expanding role of great leadership teams in global enterprises.

All kinds of people wish to become better leaders. In the jungle of classes, courses, and bootcamps, what are the lasting lessons? Roselinde Torres distills her observations from 25 years of observing and collaborating with high-powered leaders. She points to emerging trends in change management, stakeholder diversity, and innovation that explain why, despite greater interest in leadership than ever, much potential remains untapped.

4) Drew Dudley: Everyday Leadership

Drew Dudley’s interest in leadership took shape while he served as the Leadership Development Coordinator at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. Throughout his successes, he gained a keen interest in the ability of ordinary people to access leadership potential. In 2010, he founded a consultancy, Nuance Leadership Development Services, which focuses on development of customized leadership curricula for enterprises and communities.

Dudley identifies a key problem with modern leadership, in that it has become identified with a level of arrogance or cockiness – “changing the world” – that many people are uncomfortable with. He discusses how his background has allowed him to redefine leadership and focus on the ways individuals can make positive change every day. In the process, he shares a profoundly heartwarming personal anecdote and the lessons he learned from it.

5) Itay Talgam: Lead Like the Great Conductors

Israeli-born Itay Talgam is a world-renowned conductor who holds a degree in philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He began his musical career as a pianist, but was inspired by a course given by Leonard Bernstein, and switched focus to become a conductor following his military service. Since his professional debut in 1987, he has worked with most of Israel’s great orchestras. He pioneered the idea of the symphony as a metaphor for organizational behavior.

What can leaders in business, government, and nonprofits learn from one of the most iconic – yet under-appreciated – roles in the arts? According to Itay Talgam, the conductor holds lessons for everyone. A conductor must create harmony without so much as saying a word. Talgam talks about the distinctive styles of many different conductors from throughout the 20th century. Using firsthand insight, he illuminates how their example relates to familiar leadership challenges.

6) John Wooden: The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding

John Wooden rocketed to fame as basketball player and head coach at UCLA, where his winning record earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Westwood.” During his tenure, he led UCLA to win ten NCAA national championships in the span of just twelve years – and established the record for consecutive wins, seven in a row. Wooden, who lived to be 99 years old, filmed his definitive TED Talk in 2001, when he was 91. He was also a prolific author, and wrote many books about his leadership philosophy, building character, and living one’s values.

Back in the 1930s, Coach Wooden was dismayed at the way parents demanded perfection from their children and considered anything less than an “A” grade a personal failing of student and teacher. After much thought, he created his own definition of success focused around creating peace of mind by doing the best you can in every situation – not someone else’s best. Wooden unpacks this idea and its relationship to leadership and life satisfaction.

7) Stanley McChrystal: Listen, Learn … Lead

Retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal is a highly decorated officer who held some of the most challenging and respected posts of his day. Within the military establishment, he greatly distinguished himself as the head of Joint Special Operations Command throughout the mid-2000s. He made a number of very significant contributions to the international security effort in Afghanistan. He taught extensively at Yale University after his military retirement.

Everyone is different, yet throughout an organization, everyone needs to share a basic sense of purpose. This can be especially challenging in diverse organizations, such as the U.S. military itself. Opening with an anecdote about his experience with parachute jumps, he discusses how his Army career reinforced the importance of good leadership for the well-being of those led and how relationship building can strengthen common resolve between people.

8) Margaret Heffernan: Dare to Disagree

Margaret Heffernan is an extremely successful international businessperson and entrepreneur who has served as CEO of five enterprises. Her career began at the BBC, where her successes buoyed her bid to lead the world’s top professional association for television and film producers. In the U.S., she was among the first to recognize the massive potential of the Web to transform leadership and commerce, establishing several groundbreaking brands.

Heffernan begins with an important and often overlooked event in the history of medical science: Alice Stewart’s discovery that prenatal x-rays could increase cancer risk in children. It took more than two decades before this realization became accepted scientific fact. Heffernan points to Stewart’s work with statistician George Neil, whose role was to try to disprove her theory, in giving her greater confidence and the leadership capability to advocate for her position.

9) Fields Wicker-Miurin: Learning from Leadership’s Missing Manual

How can local leaders find others like them, seize untapped opportunities, and reach their full potential? Fields Wicker-Miurin explores important questions like these through the organization she co-founded, Leaders’ Quest. Leaders’ Quest helps leaders of all kinds from around the world to connect with one another, share insights, and collaborate around key problems. Region-wide “Quests” facilitate a new sense of interconnectedness between different leadership groups.

When searching for the “right” way to do leadership, people often look for examples of great and extraordinary leaders. However, Fields Wicker-Miurin asserts leadership’s “missing manual” is found in the stories of local leaders. Within their own communities, these are “ordinary” people; but what they are capable of is extraordinary. Wicker-Miurin shares a number of stories of these local leaders and how they embody core traits like drive, passion, and commitment.

10) John Maeda: How Art, Technology, and Design Inform Creative Leaders

John Maeda is Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic – the Web development company that originally designed WordPress, open-source blog software that runs tens of millions of sites worldwide. He also served as a top consultant at KPCB and on the board of directors of various companies, ranging from consumer products to advertising. He was a professor at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for over a decade.

How do design and technology intersect? What is the relationship between them in a world where math seems to take priority over art? John Maeda discusses the importance of art in generating questions and leadership in responding – by questioning, in turn, notions of hierarchy that underlie organizations. Through greater flexibility, leaders can take lessons from art and design and apply them to seemingly rigid technological paradigms.

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