8 TED talks for business leaders

| April 4, 2018

TED talks long predate the internet but 22 years after its foundation in 1984, the non-profit began posting videos of its concise, user friendly presentations online.  There are now more than 2,100 talks in the library and in total they have been viewed over 1 billion times.

Many talks offer new perspectives of interest to the business community, from cutting edge science and technology to quirks of human habits and behaviour, and several of the most popular offer guidance for better leadership.

While each talk offers a different individual’s view, certain themes tend to emerge, particular in the leadership arena.  Speakers urge their audience to take leaps of imagination, rather than timid steps, but underline the importance of involving everyone in the organisation to make best use of their talents and ensure they stay on board.

Mid-sized business owners and managers have much to learn from the entrepreneurs, scientists and artists on their approach to creativity, productivity, and change and some of the best, and most popular, talks are outlined below to offer a taste of what’s on offer.

Linda Hill: “How to manage for collective creativity

Just as they have in every other modern nation, Australian leaders have emphasised the need for greater innovation to create jobs and prosperity in a globalised, digitised economy.  Innumerable articles have been written on the best ways to foster innovative thinking and Hill, a professor of management, offers her own take in this talk.

She sees the key to commercial innovation as creating an internal “marketplace of ideas.” Rather than brainstorming ideas and suspending judgment about their results, she underlines the need for constructive debates.

Hill offers the digital animators Pixar as an example of a company that has refined its creative process to reap both commercial and critical acclaim.  Rather than the autocracy which characterised Disney, for example, she says “Pixar developed a rather patient and more inclusive decision-making process that allows for both/and solutions to arise and not simply either/or solutions.”

She says that leaders of organizations which aspire to innovate must therefore create spaces where even the lowest-ranking employees feel able to share their ideas. Rather than rely on individual genius, a firm must leverage its collective potential to create ideas beyond the grasp of any individual.

Dan Pink: “The puzzle of motivation

Dan Pink graduated from writing speeches for Al Gore to studying human motivation and his talk offers tips for managers looking to make the most of their employees. He warns them that traditional financial and career incentives are often ineffective, or actually counter-productive, as they tend to ‘dull thinking and block creativity’ and offers a more creative and evidence based approach.

Pink explains the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and argues that people will drive themselves to achieve things which matter to them personally beyond the bounds set by external rewards.  Internal motivators — rather than rewards and punishments — are therefore the “secret” to stellar performance but most firms still ignore the psychology to focus on more easily accounted for bonuses and pay.

“If you look at the science, there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does,” he says. “What’s alarming here is that our business operating system — think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources — it’s built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks.”

Organizations which give workers more autonomy are more likely to succeed as employees feel a greater sense of ownership and can unleash their own creativity. He notes that Wikipedia, the crowd sourced encyclopedia, has become history’s largest repository of information by confounding academic and commercial norms by unleashing people’s inner drive to create and succeed.

Simon Sinek: “How great leaders inspire action

Leadership expert Simon Sinek contrasts the very different levels of commitment shown by people working in the modern workplace and soldiers serving in the military.  The difference lies in the way they are managed by their superiors.  While business leaders gorge themselves on huge salaries and bonuses and see workers as costs to be reduced as much as possible, military leaders put their subordinates first.

Trust and cooperation are the keys to success in any military unit, and business organisations must built a similar ethic to ensure that employees don’t waste their time competing with each other when they should be collaborating to face and overcome challenges from outside.

Business leaders have the responsibility to create this culture, just as military officers do, by putting the organization’s interests above their own. “When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”

Tim Harford: “Trial, error and the God complex

Exploring themes touched on by Linda Hill and Dan Pink, Tim Harford urges leaders of all kinds to abandon the ‘God complex’ which leads them to believe in their own infallibility and to embrace humility and systematic problem solving instead.

Harford notes that effective solutions usually evolve and improve over time as ideas are tested and refined in use, rather than emerging perfectly formed.  Trial and error often produces variants that work which their originators could never have imagined.

Harford argues that issues can best be solved by teams working systematically, and that leaders should not only abstain from “laying down the law” but admit when they’re wrong and accept alternative perspectives.

Jacqueline Novogratz: “Inspiring a life of immersion

Jacqueline Novogratz heads the Acumen Fund, which invests in schemes around the world which promote innovation and change.  In her TED talk, she argues that “extraordinary leaders must dare to live a life of immersion” and use the resources at their disposal to transform the world in positive ways.

Rather than concentrate on the ‘bottom line’ and ‘quarterly results’, she makes a strong case that the most important things that businesses spend time on and achieve are often immeasurable by conventional financial metrics.  She advises leaders to take a ‘noble path’ and to be wary of being manipulated by powerful vested interests but to serve the true interests of a much wider community.

Itay Talgam: “Lead like the great conductors

Itay Talgam is an Israeli symphony orchestra conductor-turned-business consultant and his talk explains how business leaders can learn from conductors and the leaders of other creative teams.  He argues that the best results derive from creating an environment in which the team can lead itself, rather than telling experts in their field what to do.  The role of a leader is therefore to allow the musicians – or employees – under your command to shine, rather than direct them.

“You have the story of the orchestra as a professional body. You have the story of the audience as a community. … You have the stories of the individuals in the orchestra and in the audience. … And all those stories are being heard at the same time. This is the true experience of a live concert. By treating your employees as partners rather than true subordinates, you create harmony among your team and give it a better chance of success.”

Roselinde Torres: “What it takes to be a great leader

Roselinde Torres has spent a quarter of a century analysing the attributes of great leaders and cultivating pipelines to produce the leaders of the future. She uses her TED talk to outline what she sees as a ‘leadership gap’ exacerbated by outdated leadership development programs that stunt growth rather than encourage it.

Traditional leadership development is based on the world that was rather than what is and what’s coming. She argues that as 21st century businesses must become global, transparent, and possess a complex matrix to get things done so their leaders must ‘dare to be different’.   Above all, true leaders don’t just talk about what needs to be done, but actually do it.

Adam Galinsky: “How to speak up when you feel like you can’t

Galinsky focuses on remedying what he defines as the “low-power double bind” which hamstrings people with less power.  Employees of lower rank in the corporate hierarchy or the less-powerful party in a negotiation face at ‘catch 22′ whereby they can either speak up and risk punishment or maintain their silence, go unnoticed and have their ideas ignored.

Drawing on psychological research, the Columbia Business School professor offers a range of strategies to overcome their dilemma, allowing people of any standing to wield influence in a social situation.

One tool involves taking the other parties’ perspective to understand their motivations. “When you think about what the other person wants, they’re more likely to give you what you want,” Galinsky explains.  Another tool involves asking people for their advice so that they become your allies.

A third approach is ‘tapping into your passion’ to appear an expert on a chosen topic and make people more likely to listen and take you seriously.  You may not be able to change your title at work or acquire more social capital immediately, but you can imbue yourself with the confidence and clearheadedness to speak your mind and get what you want.