Last updated: 15 August 2019
Note: This article was originally published in June 2015, but was significantly expanded on 11 January 2017 to include even more inspiring Ted Talks on leadership.
Leadership is often a skill that’s self-taught.
It comes as a result of being aware of the qualities you possess, the ones you lack, and the ones you respect and admire in others.
And then as a result of this knowledge, working to constantly improve your leadership style through learning, self-evaluation and listening to feedback. These are crucial steps when deciding you want to lead others.
To learn what some of the most forward-thinking and innovative experts have to say about leadership, check out our list of the crème de la crème of TED Talks on leadership.
All the videos are under 23 minutes, meaning there’s no excuse not to listen to them as you have your morning coffee, during the commute to work, or when you have a few minutes to yourself.
1. How Great Leaders Inspire Action, by Simon Sinek
With more than 29 million views, Simon Sinek is now on the A-List of leadership gurus, after he gave this incredible talk.
As Sinek himself says, “As it turns out, all the great inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Wright brothers, they all think, act and communicate the exact same way. And it’s the complete opposite to everyone else. All I did was codify it, and it’s probably the world’s simplest idea. I call it the Golden Circle.”
For Sinek, the difference between these inspirational leaders and everyone else is they start with “why,” which is the core concept of his Golden Circle. By asking why, how and what, you can set yourself on a trajectory of tremendous success that, statistically speaking, very few people attain.
2. The Puzzle of Motivation, by Dan Pink
To be an effective leader, you need to know what makes people “tick,” and especially what motivates them in the workplace to give you their best. Interestingly enough, money only takes you so far.
In this compelling video –which has clocked over 13 million views – Pink (author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us) untangles the web of motivation in a way that makes sense for leaders. Here’s a hint: traditional rewards aren’t always as motivating as we think.
3. Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders, by Sheryl Sandberg
Sandberg left Google to become Facebook’s COO in 2008. In this video, she looks at why so few women make it to the C-suite, and offers up three important pieces of advice to women who want to buck the trend and get there. The key, in Sandberg’s view, is ensuring women remain in the workforce.
As it turns out, having more women remain in the workforce has other positive benefits on society and households, such as equal earning and equal responsibility between partners. As Sandberg notes, households that demonstrate this equality also have half the divorce rate.
4. The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding, by John Wooden
To be a successful leader, what better place to start than by defining exactly what you mean by success? The man affectionately known as “Coach” redefines success to be much more than merely winning. Coach James Wooden explains this difference with profound simplicity, and urges everyone to pursue the best in themselves. The Coach’s 17-minute talk is uplifting as much as it is inspiring.
5. What Makes us Feel Good About Our Work? By Dan Ariely
Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist who has gained a deeper understanding of human motivation than most economists could ever hope for. He even designed experiments that would help solve the mystery of motivation, which is what this video is all about.
As it turns out, money isn’t the only thing that motivates us to work. It isn’t exactly joy, either. The real motivation for going to work every day is to make constant progress and lead a life of purpose. Strong leaders care about the bottom line, but are about much more than that. They have a sense of purpose, and get out of bed every single day to fulfill it.
6. Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe, by Simon Sinek
Simon Sinek’s material is so good that he’s the only one to appear twice on this list. You know building trust among your followers is important, but actually doing it is another thing entirely.
Sinek’s video on the topic will take your understanding of trust to a whole new level. After all, humans are emotional species who struggle with insecurities and vulnerabilities. A good leader brings his or her employees into a circle of trust. This is especially important in today’s economy, where jobs are destroyed as fast as they are created. Leaders have a responsibility to make their workers feel safe.
7. Dare to Disagree, by Margaret Heffernan
When it comes to forming your dream team, the last thing you should do is surround yourself with what Heffernan calls “echo chambers” who only tell you what they think you want to hear. Mastering the art of disagreement is essential to effective leadership. Leaders must also be willing to cope with others disagreeing with them. Only through disagreement are ideas challenged.
Hefferman outlines a rubric for avoiding echo chambers and allowing ourselves to experience what she calls constructive conflict.
“So what does that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves. That means we have to resist the neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves, and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.”
8. Lead Like The Great Conductors, by Itay Talgam
You’ve no doubt heard leadership described through the metaphor of conducting an orchestra. Itay Talgam operationalizes that metaphor by sharing what leaders can learn from 6 different 20th-century conductors. Don’t worry, this TED Talk requires no formal background (or interest) in the symphony.
Talgam describes the “magical moment” when a conductor turns chaos into blissful music. It’s a very small gesture, “not very pomp, not very sophisticated.” And suddenly, out of the chaos, noise becomes music.
9. As Work Gets More Complex, Six Rules to Simplify, by Yves Morieux
Everyone knows that a staggering number of people are disengaged from their work. Yves Morieux argues that our reaction to the unfathomable complexity of modern work has a lot to do with that disengagement. Traditional organizational management certainly doesn’t help, either. His antidote includes 6 refreshing ways to engage in what he calls “smart simplicity.” The first rule is understand what your colleagues actually do. This is especially important for business leaders if they wish to simply the workplace and boost employee engagement.
10. What It Takes To Be A Great Leader, by Roselinde Torres
Roselinde Torres has developed a deep understanding of what makes leaders effective. She poses 3 laser-like questions that will spur your own thinking on what it takes to be a great leader.
In a world filled with executive leadership programs and expensive seminars, Torres argues the best way to learn leadership might be right under your nose. Torres’ 9-minute talk is candid and to the point.
11. A Life of Purpose, by Rick Warren
His book, Purpose-Driven Life, has sold more than 30 million copies. The church he pastors, Saddleback Church, has more than 22,000 members. Clearly, Rick Warren understands a few things about leadership.
This video is an intimate presentation of his own thoughts and crises around leadership. For anyone who’s ever looked at their existence and said, “There’s got to be more to life than this” will certainly find solace in Warren’s 21-minute talk.
12. Listen, Learn… Then Lead, by Stanley McChrystal
Stanley McChrystal is a 4-star general who spent decades in the military. What he gleaned about leadership that can build a shared sense of purpose among an incredibly diverse set of followers boils down to how well you listen and learn, as well as how you position failure.
McChrystal’s view of leadership can be summarized with the following quote:
“[A] leader isn’t good because they’re right; they’re good because they’re willing to learn and to trust. This isn’t easy stuff.”
13. Got a Wicked Problem to Solve? First, Tell me How you Make Toast, by Tom Wujec
Making toast is simple, right? But what happens when someone asks you to draw how you make toast? Suddenly things get interesting, and complicated.
This simple exercise reveals much about leading solutions to complex problems. Tom Wujec invites listeners to run the exercise themselves while explaining what he’s learned from observing thousands of people draw toast. From this talk, leaders will learn some important truths about how to handle real-world challenges.
14. Everyday Leadership, by Drew Dudley
Drew Dudley’s whole approach is to make sure everyone understands how to bring out the leader within. Too many people think great leadership is reserved for extraordinary people.
His humorous take will remind you of all the little things leaders do each day. Leadership may be self-taught, but certainly isn’t reserved to a special segment of society. Dudley reminds us that leadership is an everyday act that should be celebrated.
15. Tribal Leadership, by David Logan
It’s easy to think that as a species we have evolved far beyond the days of tribalism, but management consultant David Logan argues that effective leaders understand the 5 kinds of tribes that still crop up naturally in nearly any setting. Logan’s talk takes you through the 5 tribes, or stages, beginning with “Life sucks” and ending with “Life is great.”
16. Learning From Leadership’s Missing Manual, by Fields Wicker-Miurin
If you missed the opening line of this article, Fields Wicker-Miurin will remind you that leadership is self-taught. People who are looking for the holy grail leadership manual will wait forever in vain.
Leadership comes from within, but that shouldn’t stop you from developing the qualities that people admire in a great leader. Instead of looking for a how-to manual, learn the inspiring story of a local leader in your community. They’re not as far away or elusive as you might think.
17. How To Make Work-Life Balance Work, by Nigel Marsh
Leaders may be workaholics, but they also value work-life balance. That’s Nigel Marsh’s main thrust in this 2010 talk. Marsh shows you how to share a balance lifestyle between family, personal time and productivity. He also drops some inspiration from his books Fit, Fifty, and Fired Up and Overworked and Underlaid (yes, he has a great sense of humor).
Achieving an ideal work-life balance may seem like a jigsaw puzzle, but isn’t nearly as hard as our productivity-obsessed culture makes it out to be. Through small changes, you can have a big impact on work, relationships and life in general.
18. The Key To Success? Grit, by Angela Lee Duckworth
Successful consultant-turned-teacher Angela Lee Duckworth reminds us that success requires hard work and grit. While this is nothing we don’t know, why are these characteristics so difficult to apply? As Duckworth says, “as much as talent counts, effort counts twice.”
Duckworth’s quick talk is an essential listen for anyone getting suckered into taking shortcuts. As it turns out, all the old adages about success and hard work are true.
19. The Secret Structure Of Great Talks, by Nancy Duarte
The ability to move others through motivational speech is one of the greatest qualities of a true leader. Author and CEO Nancy Duarte gets it, and that’s why she developed this 18-minute talk to help aspiring leaders take their presentation skills to the next level.
Duarte dissects the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Steve Jobs to uncover the essential qualities of a great presentation. If leadership is your passion, be prepared to spend a lot of time talking in front of people.
20. How To Start A Movement, by Derek Sivers
Don’t let the name of this short TED Talk fool you – Derek Sivers isn’t calling for revolution or political anarchy. Using interesting footage, Sivers shows you how surprisingly easy it is to start a movement. As they say, it takes two to tango. That’s all that’s needed for leaders to inspire a movement.
21. Got A Meeting? Take A Walk, by Nilofer Merchant
“Sitting has become the smoking of our generation.” – Nilofer Merchant
In her TED Talk, business innovator Nilofer Merchant offers a simple message about the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Leaders spend a lot of time in meetings. Merchant suggests you turn your next one-on-one meeting into a “walking meeting.” Not only do you hit two birds with one stone – by meeting and elevating your heart rate – the simple act of walking allows your ideas to flow much better than they otherwise would sitting in a cramped office.
22. The Leaders Who Ruined Africa, And The Generation Who Can Fix It, Fred Swaniker
Africa has struggled to live up to its development goals, and its leaders are to blame, says TED Fellow and founder of the African Leadership Network Fred Swaniker.
Having lived throughout Africa, Swaniker highlights the vital role true leaders play in building a society, and what can happen in their absence. Swaniker’s description of the next great African leaders is anybody who wants to make a difference in their society, especially where strong institutions are lacking.
23. The Happy Secret To Better Work, by Shawn Achor
It’s generally assumed we have to work to be happy, but what if we have it backwards? That’s the argument psychologist and CEO Shawn Achor makes in this 2012 talk. Achor says we need to be happy independently of work, and only then will we be able to increase productivity and success in the workplace.
Searching for happiness in the workplace can be a deep rabbit hole that often leads to less happiness overall. This is an important message for leaders, who seek to inspire other people in their line of work. It just so happens that developing happiness outside the 9-5 hours is the most important for our health and success.
24. How to Fix a Broken School? Lead Fearlessly, Love Hard, by Linda Cliatt-Wayman
You don’t have to be a teacher to appreciate Linda Cliatt-Wayman’s inspirational talk about her time as principal at a failing school in Philadelphia. It didn’t take long for her to realize that leadership was more than just “laying down the law.” We won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say she managed to turn around her struggling school. There were 3 key principles that helped her get there.
25. Trial, Error and the God Complex, by Tim Harford
If the title of Tim Harford’s TED Talk doesn’t pique your interest, nothing will. Harford, an economics writer who studies complex systems, talks about the importance of trial and error in achieving success. Except he doesn’t just “talk” about it, but presents the findings of his studies on complex systems.
As the title suggests, Harford’s talk centres on the concept of a God complex – refusing to admit the possibility of being wrong regardless of the complexity of the situation – and the importance of trial and error in achieving better results. Go down the list, virtually every successful business leader used trial and error to perfect their craft.
26. The Surprising Habits Of Original Thinkers, by Adam Grant
“The greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most.” – Adam Grant
Suffice it to say, all aspiring leaders want to be recognized for their creativity and originality. While creativity often lies within, psychologist Adam Grant studies the lives of “originals” – thinkers whose ideas transform the world. Over the course of 15 minutes, Grant explains the unexpected habits of original thinkers, and their fearlessness in the face of failure.
Fear of failure is one of the biggest inhibitors to success in all of life’s endeavors. While never easy, leaders must learn to overcome that fear. Studying the habits of original thinkers will teach aspiring leaders they “need a lot of bad ideas in order to get a few good ones.”
27. Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, by Amy Cuddy
Four years and more than 38 million views later, Amy Cuddy’s powerful TED Talk has resonated with many aspiring leaders. As a social psychologist, Cuddy explains how “power posing” – showcasing a posture of confidence even when you don’t feel confident – can affect your brain chemistry and move you to positive action.
While some of the findings presented in the study are controversial among social scientists, Cuddy’s talk is a great reminder of the importance of projecting confidence in every situation. Whether that holds up to tests of academic rigor are less important.
28. How to Get Your Ideas To Spread, by Seth Godin
If you think the answer to Seth Godin’s talk is “social media,” try again. This TED Talk took place back in 2007, a few years before social media became as ubiquitous as it is today. As a leader, getting your ideas to spread requires more than just a Twitter handle. Godin, himself an author and marketing guru, explains the importance of standing out, and why even the craziest ideas can become the most successful ones.
29. Secrets Of Success In 8 Words, 3 Minutes, by Richard St. John
Analyst and bestselling author, Richard St. John, managed to condense 7 years of interviews into an unforgettable 3-minute presentation about what it takes to be truly successful. Believe us, nobody is as cognizant of your time as St. John. This 3-minute talk is normally presented as a 2-hour presentation to high school students.
30. Why We Do What We Do, by Tony Robbins
No list of inspiring TED Talks is complete without Tony Robbins, the globally renowned life success coach who has spent decades helping people achieve their dreams. Robbins shattered many preconceived notions about his work a mere 36 seconds into his presentation.
“I’m not here to motivate you, you don’t need that, obviously. Often that’s what people think I do, and it’s the furthest thing from it. What happens, though, is people say to me, ‘I don’t need any motivation.’ But that’s not what I do. I’m the ‘why’ guy. I want to know why you do what you do.”
He then goes into detail explaining the “invisible forces” that make us do the things we do. He also high-fives Al Gore in the front row. With more than 18 million views, Robbins’ TED appearance is one of the most popular.
There you have it. More than 8 hours of pure leadership inspiration to help turn you into the type of leader others admire, respect and want to follow.