The 5 Best TED Quotes on Leadership

Rachael, Direct Incorporation Staff

If you ever need a dose of motivation, inspiration, or just some good advice, listening to a TED talk will rarely disappoint. Yet with over 2,400 of the talks available for free online, your chance of stumbling upon just the talk you need is pretty slim. That’s why I’ve done the work for you, scouring TED talks about leadership and business to compile an official list of the best leadership-related quotes available from TED.

Running a business means that you are not only your own leader, but potentially the leader of one or more others. And as I’m sure we have all been under some form of leadership before, we can attest to the fact that a leader can either make or break an organization.

In order to make sure you don’t do the latter, here are messages from five different TED talks that discuss what makes a great leader:

1. Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action

There’s a reason that this talk by Sinek is one of the most-watched TED talks ever. He uses a simple, three-circle drawing to show how to completely change the way you send a message about your business. The basis is that the human brain is biologically set up like the image above: handling thoughts of “Why?” in the center, “How?” outside of that, and “What?” on the periphery—and that in order to inspire action, we need to work in the same way as peoples’ brains. While this is a long excerpt, it’s important to see all of the pieces before the end message:

“Every single person—every single organization on the planet—knows what they do. Some know how they do it. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by why I don’t mean ‘to make a profit.’ That’s a result. By why, I mean What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?

“As a result, the way we think, the way we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in. We go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations—regardless of their size, regardless of their industry—all think, act, and communicate from the inside out. Let me give you an example: I use Apple because they’re easy to use and everybody gets it. If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this:

We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. Want to buy one?

“And that’s how most of us communicate. That’s how most marketing and sales are done, and that’s how most of us communicate interpersonally. We say what we do, we say how we’re different or better and we expect some sort of behavior: a purchase, a vote, something like that.

“But it’s uninspiring. Here’s how Apple actually communicates:

Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?

“Totally different right? You’re ready to buy a computer from me. All I did was reverse the order of the information. What it proves to us is that people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. This explains why every single person in this room is perfectly comfortable buying a computer from Apple. The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe. And the goal is not just to hire people who need a job, it’s to hire people who believe what you believe.

2. Stanley McChrystal: Listen, Learn…Then Lead

This quote is short and simple, but conveys an incredibly important message.

McChrystal speaks about his time in the Army, and when, during one of his training exercises, he failed his mission and was then forced to sit and watch a replay of everything he did wrong. He felt terrible about how poorly he’d done, and after the session he approached his battalion commander to apologize. Yet as he walked over, his head hanging in shame, his commander said to him, “Stanley, I think you did great.” And in that moment he realized that “Leaders can let you fail, and yet not let you be a failure.” While someone may be disappointed that you fail, they are a true leader if they recognize that one failure does not define a person, and they continue to provide encouragement and support in order to help you grow.

3. Drew Dudley: Everyday leadership

Dudley’s talk was inspired by a personal experience. He struck up a conversation with someone and, four years later, she approached him and told him that that simple conversation had changed her life. And the thing is, he doesn’t even remember it. This then made him realize that our society needs to redefine they way we see leadership:

As long as we keep leadership something ‘bigger than us,’ as long as we keep leadership something ‘beyond us,’ as long as we keep it about ‘changing the world,’ we give ourselves an excuse not to expect it every day from ourselves and from each other. Marianne Williamson said,

‘Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, it is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light and not our darkness that frightens us.’

“My call to action today is that we need to get over our fear of how extraordinarily powerful we can be in each other’s lives. We need to get over it so we can move beyond it, and our little brothers and sisters and one day our kids—or our kids right now—can watch and start to value the impact we can have on each other’s lives, more than money and power and titles and influence. We need to redefine leadership as being about [those small, life-changing] moments—how many of them we create, how many we acknowledge, how many of them we pay forward, and how many we say thank you for. Because we’ve made leadership about changing the world, and there is no world. There’s only six billion understandings of it. And if you change one person’s understanding of it, of what they’re capable of, of how much people care about them, of how powerful an agent for change they can be in this world, you’ve changed the whole thing. And if we can understand leadership like that, I think we can change everything.”

4. Sheryl Sandberg: Why we have too few women leaders

There’s a reason I’ve placed this quote near the end of the list. When searching through these leadership and business-oriented TED talks, the speakers for the most part were like the three above: men. There was a noticeable scarcity of women, and Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, explains why:

“Women systematically underestimate their own abilities. If you test men and women and you ask them questions on totally objective criteria like GPAs, men get it wrong slightly high, and women get it wrong slightly low…No one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success, or they don’t even understand their own success. I think that a world where half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women would be a better world.

5. Reshma Saujani: Teach girls bravery, not perfection

Saujani provides further discussion on this topic, attributing our dearth of female leaders to the socialization of girls from a young age.

We’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave. Some people worry about our federal deficit. But I worry about our bravery deficit. Our economy is losing out because we’re not teaching our girls to be brave…[this is] why women are underrepresented in STEM, in C-Suites, in boardrooms, in Congress, and pretty much everywhere you look.”

She goes on to talk about a study where fifth grade girls and boys were given a challenging test. The higher the IQ of the girls, the quicker they were to give up, while the higher the IQ of the boys, the more likely they were to find the material “energizing” and redouble their efforts. Also, research has shown that men will apply for a job if they only meet sixty percent of the qualifications, but women will only apply if they fit one hundred percent.

“This study is usually invoked as evidence that women need a little more confidence. But I think it’s evidence that women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and they’re overly cautious. And even when we’re ambitious, that socialization of perfection has led us to take less risks in our careers. Our economy is being left behind on all the innovation and problems women would solve if they were socialized to be brave instead of socialized to be perfect…When we teach girls to be brave and we have a supportive network cheering them on, they will build incredible things. They will build a better world for themselves, and for each and every one of us.”

Regardless of your gender, you are capable of being brave. You are capable of being a leader in the smallest of moments. You’re capable of bringing a team together to accomplish something you believe in. You’re capable of believing in your teammates even if they fail. You’re capable of believing in yourself. These five things mean you’re capable of being a leader, and the kind of leader that makes, rather than breaks, a team. Now it’s time to go out and show it.

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