5 TED talks on inspiring leadership

Leadership is a significant issue facing not just business, but the world in general, at present. In the business world particularly, times are changing, and workplace hierarchies have undergone some massive shifts in recent years, paving the way for more distributed forms of leadership. Today’s rising generation of workers are showing preference for flat, collaborative organisational structures, with few hierarchical levels and looser leadership. Google has championed this business model for quite some time, on the basis that it helps to attract more talent and allow for more rapid business growth.

As Charlene Li, CEO and principal analyst at Altimeter Group, and author of The New York Times bestseller ‘Open Leadership’, argues in her TED Institute talk ‘Giving up Control: Leadership in the digital era’: “Hierarchies were invented at the dawn of the industrial revolution to create efficiency  and scale…But in our modern, digital connected world, efficiency pales against the need for innovation, change and for speed. The people who have to make decisions and choices reside at the edges and the bottom of the organisation. Leaders today have to trust that those employees will use good judgement when they make those decisions, that in the past would have been sent up the ladder for somebody else to decide.”

But as companies continue to flatten, the need for leadership thinking and collaboration becomes ever more critical, to ensure everyone’s focused and working towards the greater good. If you’re in a position of leadership, or interested in learning more about the subject, we’ve put together a playlist of five thought provoking TED Talks, which offer rare and candid insight into how to be a visionary and inspirational leader…

Linda Hill: How to manage for collective creativity

Length: 17.17

Harvard professor Linda Hill studies ‘collective genius’, which as the name implies, is the way great companies, and great leaders, empower creativity from many. She’s spent the past decade observing exceptional leaders of innovation, and the bottom line of her research, she claims, is “if we want to build organisations that can innovate time and again, we must unlearn our conventional notions of leadership”.

Innovation, she argues, is not about solo genius, but collective genius, where effective leadership creates the space for this to happen. “What we know is, at the heart of innovation is a paradox. You have to unleash the talents and passions of many people and you have to harness them into a work that is actually useful. Innovation is a journey. It’s a type of collaborative problem solving, usually among people who have different expertise and different points of view.”

Hill claims innovative organisations are communities that have three capabilities: creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution. She cites two examples of businesses who’ve achieved this: Google and Pixar. “They know how to do collaborative problem solving, they know how to do discovery-driven learning and they know how to do integrated decision making…Leadership is the secret sauce. But it’s a different kind of leadership, not the kind many of us think about when we think about great leadership.”

Hill’s inspirational talk challenges us to recast our understanding of what leadership is about, so that we create a space where people are willing and able to do the hard work of innovative problem solving.

Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action

Length: 18.04

When a TED Talk receives almost 28 million views, you can assume it is worth a watch!

Sinek’s talk gets to the heart of how some of the most successful leaders in history have been able to inspire cooperation, trust and change. He explains: “All the great inspiring leaders and organisations in the world,whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King 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.”

Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action

At the crux of Sinek’s message is the belief that few individuals and organisations know why they do what they do, i.e. their greater purpose or cause. “The inspired leaders and the inspired organisations, regardless of their size, regardless of their industry; all think, act and communicate from the inside out,” he argues.

Sinek builds a powerful case for leadership, based on science and strong anecdotal evidence. Amid the bravado and ugliness of the political leadership debates that have been taking place either side of the pond recently, it’s a good time to be reminded of inspirational leaders such as Martin Luther King.

“There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us,” says Sinek. “Whether they’re individuals or organisations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. And it’s those who start with “why” that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.”

Roselinde Torres: What it takes to be a great leader

Length: 9.19

Roselinde Torres has spent the past 25 years observing truly great leaders at work, working inside Fortune 500 companies and advising over 200 CEOs, as well as travelling to different parts of the world to learn from non-profit organisations. In this clear, candid talk, she shares the three simple but crucial questions she believes would-be company chiefs need to ask, in order to be a great leader in the 21st century:

  • Where are you looking to anticipate the next change to your business model or your life?
  • What is the diversity measure of your personal and professional stakeholder network?
  • Are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past?

This bite-size talk packs a lot into just under 10 minutes, and offers many words of wisdom.

Fields Wicker-Miurin: Learning from leadership’s missing manual

Length: 16.35

Discussions of leadership very often centre on the great leaders of our time, but Fields Wicker-Miurin takes a refreshing new angle, sharing stories of some lesser known, but nevertheless brave and impactful leaders from her journeys around the world. Her talk is a moving one, getting to the heart of what really makes a true leader.

The stories take us on a journey from a remote Amazon village, to Bangalore, through to the Sichuan Province in southwest China. The inspiring individuals we hear of have demonstrated through their behaviour what it means to be a great leader, and fundamentally, they haven’t been afraid of change.

“These people inspire me, and they inspire me because they show us what is possible when you change the way you look at the world, change the way you look at your place in the world,” explains Wicker-Miurin. “They looked outside, and then they changed what was on the inside. They didn’t go to business school. They didn’t read a manual, “How to Be a Good Leader in 10 Easy Steps.” But they have qualities we’d all recognise. They have drive, passion, commitment. They’ve gone away from what they did before, and they’ve gone to something they didn’t know.”

We can learn a lot from these individuals, and these stories are well worth listening to.

Stanley McChrystal: Listen, learn…then lead

Length: 15.38

Four-star general Stanley McChrystal, served during 9/11, and witnessed the emergence of a “whole new world”. Within his talk, he shares what he’s learned about leadership over his decades in the military, which he relays through expert storytelling. For 15 minutes, McChrystal transports us to some of his most memorable operations, and through these he explores the question, how can you build a sense of shared purpose among people of many ages and skill sets? His stories demonstrate the ultimate importance of listening and learning, and addressing the possibility of failure.

Working amid rapid technological advances and with geographically dispersed teams, McChrystal shares with honesty the learning processes he’s experienced as a leader in the military. “So how does a leader stay credible and legitimate when they haven’t done what the people you’re leading are doing? And it’s a brand new leadership challenge. And it forced me to become a lot more transparent, a lot more willing to listen, a lot more willing to be reverse-mentored from lower,” he explains.

His talk exposes the challenges that come with the responsibility of leadership, and offers many valuable insights. Ultimately, it concludes that trust and collaboration are critical traits, as well as tenacity. “I came to believe that 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.”

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