9 TED Talks to help new managers build leadership skills

Lori Li
11 min read
Sep 24, 2021

What do you think is the hardest thing about being a new manager? 

Is it learning how to supervise employees? Making difficult decisions?

When it boils down to it, there are many challenges that come with being a manager. One of the most difficult ones is often learning how to become a leader, especially in the face of uncertainty and ever-changing circumstances. 

True leaders don’t just manage. They inspire and create a shared vision for the future. They know how to tell a story and how to listen to others’ perspectives. They are authentic and willing to share their truth.

These unique skills and qualities are what separates mere managers from transformational leaders.

How to develop managers into leaders

When it boils down to it, there’s an abundance of materials out there dedicated to helping managers develop leadership skills. 

We have conferences, university courses, and entire books on the subject. Many companies even have their own long-term development programs designed to build leaders.

Although organizations spend almost $50 billion every year on leadership development, for many companies, it’s not enough. 

In fact, an estimated 84% of organizations anticipate a leadership shortage in the next five years!

Spending more money isn’t necessarily the answer, though. 

While leadership development programs and training are important, we also need to focus on continuously targeting key leadership skill development.

That’s one of the great things about TED Talks. 

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They’re free to watch and you can find great videos on almost any subject. When it comes to leadership, the sheer volume of TED Talks out there is almost overwhelming. 

In this list of the top nine TED Talks to help new managers build leadership skills, you’ll find a variety of leadership lessons for your new managers. Each one targets a crucial leadership skill and you can use the post-talk ideas and activities to get the most out of each video.

With that in mind, here are the top nine TED Talks to help your new managers develop into leaders.

9 TED Talks to help new managers build leadership skills

1. Simon Sinek | How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Leadership Skill: Inspirational Leadership

Have you ever had a manager who was just uninspiring? 

They weren’t necessarily “bad” at their job. They just weren’t motivating or engaging. And often, work suffers if leaders aren’t able to inspire their teams.

In this TED Talk, Simon Sinek, author of the New York Times bestsellers Start with Why and Leaders Eat Last, explains the “Golden Circle” model. 

The majority of leaders focus on the what — i.e., what their team needs to do. Some leaders focus on the how. But inspirational leaders always start with the why. They communicate from the inside out to get their team to understand their vision.

This type of communication requires using the limbic brain to come from a place of purpose. Sinek explains that leaders who start with why are more likely to inspire their team and get them to follow in their footsteps.

Post-Video Exercise to Find Your Why as a Leader

Before managers can inspire their teams, they need to be passionate about their own work and understand their purpose as a leader.

After your managers watch Sinek’s TED Talk, ask them to reflect on what they’ve learned. 

Have them think of a work activity that makes them feel alive — something that causes them to get into deep focus.

This will be different for everyone. It could be anything from helping an employee work through a problem to creating a PowerPoint presentation. Whatever the case may be, ask them to write it down.

Once that’s done, have them identify which need their answer meets for the team. Does it help them make better decisions or build awareness about a new product or process?

Finally, ask your managers to describe the impact the activity has on their employees' personal or work lives. The impact they identify will help them see the meaning their work brings. 

Once they’ve worked through this exercise, they can also use it with their teams to help their employees understand the why behind their work.

2. Patti Dobrowolski | Draw Your Future

Leadership Skill: Innovation & Future-Mindedness

Oftentimes, new managers don’t want to rock the boat. They may be intimidated and don’t want to cause any waves with employees, their peers, or leadership. 

This usually leads to one thing: the status quo.

In this TED Talk, Patti Dobrowolski shares how drawing can lead to innovation. Her method, based on neuroscience, uses the power of thinking to create a vision for the future. Managers can use this to create a new reality for themselves, their teams, and their organizations.

When it comes to change, the deck is usually stacked against us. In fact, research has shown that we’re often facing 9 to 1 odds when it comes to making effective changes.

Dobrowolski suggests that when we envision our desired future, we start to believe. Once we believe, we can then train and execute our vision to the fullest.

But can something as simple as drawing create lasting change?

Science suggests it can. Believe it or not, it’s been shown that drawing and dreaming creates serotonin in the brain. This, in turn, enhances creativity and allows us to come up with more innovative ideas to reach our goals.

Post-Video Exercise to Create Your Desired Reality

Many times when new managers come in, they may be faced with underperforming teams, a culture of mistrust, or other circumstances that make it difficult to manage effectively. 

Being able to envision a different reality can help improve employee relationships, engagement, and productivity.

Once your managers have finished watching Dobrowolski’s TED Talk, ask them to try it for themselves.

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On a large poster, have them draw current reality on the left side of the poster. Ask them to reflect for several minutes on what their desired reality looks like and then draw it on the right side.

Make sure they spend some time filling the poster with color and emotion then they can begin to build their roadmap. Have your managers identify three bold steps they can take to make it a reality.

Remember, as Dobrowolski suggests, ask yourself a simple question: What’s the boldest thing I could do to get from here to there?

3. Rush Milligan | Storytelling: How to tell a leader from a manager

Leadership Skill: Telling a Story

You’ve probably heard the story about The Three Little Pigs.

The little pigs are ready to set out on their own, find their own path in life, and create their own future.

So they start by building their own house — a place to call their own.

The first is money-conscious. He wants to make the most of his money and buys cheap straw. The second is willing to invest a little more and uses wood. The third wants to be prepared for anything and spends more to build with brick.

I think we all know what happens next.

Stories like The Three Little Pigs draw us in. They make us interested and we learn something.

That’s the power of a story. 

While your managers may not be educating the world about the importance of strong building materials, they often have a story and a lesson to share — or many of them.

There’s a difference between the data (i.e., what the pigs buy), the information (i.e., the wolf blows down a house), and the story.

According to Milligan, storytelling is a human transforming something or being transformed. Stories are what connect us together as human beings. They can help us gain buy-in and rally our teams.

Post-Video Exercise to Create a Story

Storytelling is about turning data and information into something an audience can connect with. 

Ask your new managers to think about the message they are trying to get across. 

What is the data and what is the information? What emotions are tied to each? How might the information affect someone's experience or how they feel?

With these insights, they can begin to create the story — and bring the team together.

4. Chris Anderson | TED’s secret to great public speaking

Leadership Skill: Public Speaking

Ah, public speaking. 

Whether presenting to a small group or large, speaking to an audience causes many to tense up. Once we get past the initial anxiety of public speaking, we often face another challenge: figuring out how to effectively present and ensure our audience is engaged.

As a new leader, your managers will likely be faced with situations where they need to get their team on board with a new project or present an idea to executive leadership for sponsorship.

In this TED Talk, Chris Anderson expresses that “ideas are the most powerful force shaping human culture” and, as speakers, our number one task is to build that idea inside the minds of our audience.

Take, for instance, a presentation about new software. Before you can get your audience to care about how to use it, they need a clear understanding of the value the technology brings. 

Anderson describes this as the “one major idea.” For the most effective presentation, focus on a single idea and make it worth sharing. Give it context and use it to inspire others.

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Post-Video Exercise to Develop a Great Presentation

Developing a great presentation starts with one major idea. 

Once your new managers watch Anderson’s TED Talk, give each of them a mock scenario and ask them to develop a short, five-minute presentation. For this, ask them to use Anderson’s four guidelines.

  1. Identify one idea everything can link back to.

  2. Figure out how to make their audience curious and want to know more about their topic. One thing your managers can try that Anderson suggests is developing intriguing, provocative questions they can ask their audience.

  3. Use language and concepts their audience easily understands. Is there a metaphor the audience might connect with?

  4. Make it clear who benefits from the idea and try to work that into the presentation.

5. Brene Brown | The Power of Vulnerability

Leadership Skill: Vulnerability

Leading during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic can be a tremendous challenge, especially for new managers. Now more than ever, our managers need to show their teams compassion and empathy. And that often starts with vulnerability.

According to McKinsey, when leaders show vulnerability during a crisis, team members have lower stress levels and increased productivity.

As human beings, we are wired for connections. That’s what brings meaning to our lives. In the workplace, teams need to connect with each other and their direct managers.

Brene Brown explains that we have to be vulnerable to truly establish connections with each other. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s necessary and becomes less excruciating as we embrace it.

With embracing vulnerability comes whole-hearted living — which means having the courage to be imperfect, putting yourself out there, and letting yourself be seen.

Further Resources for Developing Vulnerability as a Leader

6. Irving Washington | Authentic Leadership for the Future

Leadership Skill: Authenticity 

Vulnerability is an important leadership trait. But just because you’re being vulnerable doesn’t always mean others will be. It often makes them feel awkward or insecure about their own leadership abilities. 

In many businesses, the organizational culture tells managers to not talk about leadership challenges. Unsurprisingly, this type of culture can be particularly challenging for developing leaders.

In his TED Talk, Irving Washington explores the “one idea for the future of leadership” which encompasses compassion, diversity, and strategy. 

Leadership is all of these things and more. But how do you do all of those things? 

Washington’s answer to this is embracing your authenticity. Being an authentic leader means “loving yourself, congratulating yourself on good days, forgiving yourself on bad days, and doing the absolute best you can.”

Post-Video Exercise to Become an Authentic Leader

Being an authentic leader also means learning to love yourself. Part of this is taking the time to recharge and making sure your own cup is full before you can pour yourself into others’ cups. 

After your new managers watch Washington’s TED Talk, ask them to spend 10 minutes creating their own self-care plan.

For some, this may mean working on setting boundaries. For others, it could be taking the time to reflect or get outside and take a walk.

The self-care plans your managers create should be manageable. But they should also pose a slight challenge.

7. Dan Ariely | What Makes us Feel Good About Work?

Leadership Skill: Motivating Teams

What motivates our employees? For many, money is the first thing that comes to mind. But motivation isn’t that simple.

In Dan Ariely’s TED Talk, he discusses the difference between meaningful work and a Sisyphusian condition — an endless cycle of work without meaning and its impact on motivation.

At the end of the day, employees want to take ownership of their work and be challenged. They also need to receive recognition for their contributions to stay motivated and productive.

Post-Video Exercise: Motivating Employees

Once your new managers have a better understanding of the importance of providing meaningful work and recognition, ask them to identify one employee who’s doing or has recently done a great job. 

Ask them to spend five minutes answering the following questions and reflecting on their responses:

  • What has your employee done well? 
  • What was the outcome of their work?
  • How can you recognize them for their contributions?
  • Are there ways to let them have more ownership of their work?

8. Celeste Headlee | 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation

Leadership Skill: Effective Conversations

A key trait that almost every great leader shares is the ability to listen. 

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 and remote work has made effective workplace communication more difficult than ever. Although convenient, video conferences and meetings can hinder conversations because of the lack of body language and inevitable technological problems.

In Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk, she shares 10 basic rules new managers can use to improve conversations virtually and in person.

Post-Video Exercise: Planning a Difficult Conversation

With learning, applying what you learn is crucial for retaining new skills. Ask your managers to spend a few minutes mapping out a plan to hold a difficult conversation with someone.

Using Headlee’s tips, have your new managers work through the following questions:

  • Who do you need to have a difficult conversation with and why?
  • How can you create a space, distraction-free space to have the conversation?
  • What language should you avoid? 
  • Are there better alternatives?
  • What are some open-ended questions you may want to ask to learn more about their perspective?

9. Walid Afifi | How Uncertainty Affects Us

Leadership Skill: Leading During Uncertainty

If there’s one thing that’s been certain throughout this pandemic, it’s that managers and their teams are each facing a lot of uncertainty. 

Uncertainty is a universal feeling. 

According to Walid Afifi’s TED Talk, our bodies and minds respond to uncertainty with the same degree of intensity as we do with a major event like war. Understanding how this affects us can help leaders better connect with and support their teams.

We often handle not knowing worse than we handle bad news because there are so many unknowns. During times of uncertainty, we have an innate need to be certain about one thing: the people you care about also care about you. We need to hear someone close to us say: “I am here for you.”

Post-Video Exercise: Committing to Being There for Employees

As Afifi shares, we need to know someone is watching our back. In the workplace, this translates to having managers that are engaged and value their employees.

After watching Afifi’s TED Talk, take the time to facilitate discussions about specific actions managers can take to be there for their employees. With that in mind, here are some ideas to jumpstart your discussions:

  • Schedule time to meet with each employee in a one-on-one meeting
  • Talk about uncertainty and the impact it has had 
  • Let employees know you there here for them
  • Ask how you can help

Transforming Managers Into Leaders

Great leaders inspire and authentically lead teams in creating a shared vision.

Leadership development is a continuous process. Although sometimes overlooked, TED Talks like the ones shared in this article can be a powerful way to help new managers step into their role as leaders.

There’s only one question left to answer: Which one will you watch first?

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