man sitting outside learning leadership skills

5 Must-Watch TED Talks To Help You Build Leadership Skills

By Baili Bigham

Every great leader possesses unique leadership skills that have propelled them to the top, but one quality they all share is a strong commitment to continuous learning. Take Bill Gates, the legendary founder of Microsoft, who reads over 50 books a year. This is Gates’ primary way of gaining new knowledge and testing his understanding.

But in case you’re not ready to average four books a month, we’ve gathered five powerful TED talks below, each focusing on a particular facet of leadership, from learned behaviors, to goal setting, and even incivility in the workplace. Besides, who needs to read the full book when you can spend the next 12 minutes listening to the author speak? (It’s not cheating, we checked.)

1. Elizabeth Lyle: How to Break Bad Management Habits Before They Reach the Next Generation of Leaders


Leadership Development Expert, Elizabeth Lyle, begins this talk by confessing her habit of dirty dish stacking. Lyle shares that this began during her time in college, and she used every excuse she could think of to push off cleaning them. At some point, stacking dishes became second nature and she stopped questioning why she was leaving them there in the first place.

The inability to keep yourself accountable is how bad behavior is shaped, and in our formative years during our twenties, it’s more important than ever to kick these habits before they sink in (pun intended). This behavior can seep into other areas of your life and affect your professional development.

Learned behavior can be passed on to others, and in this ever-evolving business landscape, bulldozing your way to the top with little regard for those around you is no longer the metric being rewarded. With every interaction, leaders are subconsciously shaping the routines and practices of our leader-of-tomorrow. “Organizations are evolving rapidly, and they’re counting on their future leaders to lead with more speed, flexibility, trust and cooperation than they do today.”

So, how can leaders intervene earlier? Lyle shares that the best learning happens on the job. Empower your employees and give them opportunities to try new things with you there as their safety net. In doing this, both you and your employees will continually grow together.

Lyle quotes Warren Buffet from a school lecture he gave 20 years prior, “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they’re too heavy to be broken.” Mentors, it’s time to embrace new behaviors and build stronger leadership skills and capabilities.

2. Adam Grant: Are You a Giver or Taker?


After three years of studying the dynamics of success and productivity, Organizational Psychologist, Author, and Professor Adam Grant talks about the three types of people in every workplace—givers, takers, and matchers.

Takers are only focused on what you can do for them, and seek to gain as much as possible from every interaction. Givers, as you can imagine, keep others top of mind and consistently give without expecting anything in return. Matchers are those who believe in a just world with equal give and take.

To find out what role each of these personalities play in an office, Grant surveyed 30,000 people. He found that most fall under the category of matchers. But of the three types, who are the most successful and who are the least? Surprisingly, givers are both the best and worst performers. This is true because many givers get exploited and burn out, but the rest achieve extraordinary success through their selflessness and strong leadership skills.

When more people are helping others, an organization does better on every level. “Success is really more about contribution,” says Grant. Creating a world where givers can excel will pave more opportunity for organizations and leaders than ever before.

3. John Doerr: Why the Secret to Success is Setting the Right Goals


“We’re at a critical moment. Some of our great institutions are failing us. Why? In some cases, it’s because they’re bad or unethical, but often, they’ve taken us to the wrong objectives. This is unacceptable.” – John Doerr

As an extension from his book, Measure What Matters, the “Johnny Appleseed” of OKRs, John Doerr gives this insightful talk on why the most successful leaders from Google to Amazon know how to set the right goals.

These goals are set using a system of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). This simple system is intended to answer two questions; “where do you want to go,” and “how do you want to get there?” This opens the door for collaboration and creates the necessary alignment for even the most audacious goals. From here, execution of your key results become far easier and more manageable.

Many people aren’t setting the right goals, and even more people aren’t setting goals at all. If you’re guilty of either of those mistakes, take a step back and begin with finding your true purpose. What is your “why?” Teams with extraordinary success marry their ambitions with purpose in clear, concise ways.

Remember, OKRs aren’t intended to be the alternative for a healthy culture or effective leadership skills. But through the use of OKRs, you’ll begin matching your ambition with measurable metrics, and eliminating the ambiguity that would otherwise stunt your progress.

4. Martin Danoesastro: What Are You Willing to Give Up to Change the Way We Work?


Picture this—you look in the sky and see a flock of birds moving in perfect synchrony. Each bird is autonomous, yet works concurrently with each shift in direction. Now imagine If there were only one leader. How might this disrupt the flow?

This description represents the modern workplace. As technology speeds up processes and work capabilities, so should the time it takes to make important decisions. Transformation Expert, Martin Danoesastro says creating small, autonomous teams are the key to this change.

Transparency and open communication, when incorporated to any organization or team, serves as a catapult for success. While this advice may seem cliche, many leaders still hold information close to their chest as they fear letting go of their hard-earned power, but the opposite is true. According to Danoesastro, welcoming transparency not only gains respect from teammates, but you are also able to find the right solutions to issues before it’s too late. The result is a collaborative culture with a brand new energy, and (much) less hierarchy.

Incorporating change into any company is no easy feat. In order to embrace the new, you must first find the courage to shake off the old habits that no longer work. So, what are you willing to give up?

5. Christine Porath: Why Being Respectful to Your Coworkers is Good for Business


Associate Professor at Georgetown University, Christine Porath gives a science backed talk discussing the severe impacts of incivility. Treating people with disrespect in any form can hinder your success, but the price of rudeness can even add up enough to impact your company’s bottom line.

There are various behaviors that fall into this category. What might be disrespectful to you could be perfectly civil to others. But small, uncivil actions can lead to much bigger problems, and while we may not mean to make someone feel a certain way, there can be big consequences to not choosing our words more carefully.

Porath launched a study and found that incivility demotivates all parties involved, even those who witness it. A multinational technology company took these findings from Porath’s study and estimated that incivility in their workplace costs around $12M a year. “Incivility is a bug. It’s contagious, and we become carriers of it just by being around it.”

The number one reason why people treat others rudely or insensitively is because they feel stressed. These types of people also feel that appearing nicer is less leader-like, but truly, those that are seen as civil are two times as likely to be viewed as a good leader. This empirical evidence confirms that despite popular opinion, jerks aren’t the ones that get ahead. Those who lift up their peers daily will garner more respect from them and a higher chance of success in the long run.

Each of these experts offer invaluable advice for those looking to up-level their leadership skills. If you want to practice some of the same habits as great leaders before you, like Bill Gates, stay firm in your commitment to continuous learning.

You no longer have to sit through a full book to gain new knowledge. Instead, fill the pockets of your time using the resources available at your fingertips. Read a thought-provoking article, sign up for an interesting webinar, or even take a moment to watch a new TED talk. These new learnings have the ability to transform the way you make important decisions, manage your teams, and interact with the people closest to you.  

Baili Bigham is Content Manager at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and 360° reviews. When Baili isn’t writing, you can find her knee-deep in a new book or strategizing ways to pet every dog in San Francisco.

Photo By: Avi Richards on Unsplash


Know the pulse of your team each week and improve employee engagement with 15Five.


Human Resources Today