The TED Talks Every Aspiring Leader Should Watch

Updated 10/19/19
TED Talks on Leadership
Beige Renegade

We are lucky to live in a world where brilliant women have reached the top echelons of many industries. Unfortunately, the gender equality gap is still enormous, and underrepresented people, especially women and people of color, are not rising to the top as quickly as they should be.

If you're looking for a little inspiration for shattering that glass ceiling, the following TED Talks in leadership will inspire you to lean in, rise up, say yes to opportunities, and pursue your passions. If you are ambitious and goal-oriented, keep scrolling to watch our favorite TED Talks on leadership given by successful women like Sheryl Sandberg, Shonda Rhimes, and Leila Hoteit. Trust us—you'll gain all the inspiration you need to fulfill your leadership potential.

"Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are" by Amy Cuddy

Takeaways: Everyone makes sweeping judgments based on people's body language. Hence, our nonverbal body language plays a significant factor in how our people think and feel about us. Cuddy asks the question, "Do our nonverbals govern how we think and feel about ourselves?" Her studies indicate that they do. Cuddy compared the effects of sitting in an upright posture versus a hunched-over posture in a variety of subjects.

Those whose posture was erect exhibited hormonal changes that configured the brain to be assertive, confident, and comfortable, while those who made themselves smaller by hunching over felt stressed, reactive, and shut down. In this TED Talk, Cuddy teaches people how to position themselves so that they feel ready to lead and capable of it. So stand up tall, throw your shoulders back, and bring on the promotions.

"Presence" by Amy Cuddy $28 $20
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"Why Do Ambitious Women Have Flat Heads?" by Dame Stephanie Shirley

Takeaways: Dame Stephanie Shirley is the most successful tech entrepreneur you've never heard of, and she's certainly one of the most entertaining to watch speak. With her eccentric style and dry wit, Stephanie Shirley (or Steve Shirley, as she would sign her company-wide memos) describes the gradual process from how she founded a freelance programming firm for women with six British pounds and expanded that company into a titan that generates over three billion pounds.

After surviving the Nazi invasion during WWII, Shirley decided to make her life one worth saving, and then, in her own words, "I got on with it." Shirley pioneered women going back to the office by starting a company of women and for women in her kitchen, and listening to her story is incredibly inspiring. All aspiring leaders should learn from Shirley's words of wisdom.

"Let It Go" by Dame Stephanie Shirley $from 5.87
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"Your Elusive Creative Genius" by Elizabeth Gilbert

Takeaways: In her TED Talk, Gilbert stresses the benefits of fear. When she was a young, aspiring woman, everyone would always ask Gilbert if she was mentally strong enough to endure the long and minimally hopeful career of being a writer. After the tremendous success of Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert cannot count the number of times colleagues and friends have voiced concern over whether or not she could handle the stress of trying to top her famous success.

Gilbert bravely articulates how her dreams and her success have most definitely scared her, but fear should never stop someone from pursuing a creative passion. She states that creative ventures make us nervous about other people's health. But if you want to excel in a creative field, you must move past any external comments about the unhappiness and lack of recognition that a creative path can entail. The truth is that anyone, from a doctor to an investment banker to a songwriter, is taking a risk when making a career decision. But to zone out others' concerns for your well-being, you must have conviction.

"Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert $17
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"What It Takes to Be a Great Leader" by Roselinde Torres

Takeaways: After noticing a disturbing trend in leadership preparation, Torres took a sabbatical from her prestigious consulting job to travel the world and research effective leadership methods in disparate societies across the globe. After conducting her research, Torres concluded that leadership in the 21st century is defined by three questions: 1. Where are you looking to anticipate change in both your business model and your life? 2. What is the diversity measure of your network? 3. Are you courageous enough to abandon the past, even if it worked for you in the past?

Essentially, Torres believes that strong, well-prepared leaders are constantly reacting to the world around them—not just working with their heads down. Powerful leaders have the capacity to develop relationships with people who are very different from themselves and gain their trust. And great leaders take risks. They dare to be different from others and from their previous selves. Watching Torres's TED is an absolute must for anyone looking to develop into successful, respected leaders.

"How Remarkable Women Lead" by Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston $18 $14
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"Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders" by Sheryl Sandberg

Takeaways: We can thank Sandberg for pioneering the Lean In movement. But even if you've read her outstanding book, we highly recommend viewing this TED talk of hers and the follow-up 12 months later entitled "So We Leaned In… Now What?"

First, Sandberg stated the facts. Women are not making it to the top of any profession in any part of the world. Even in the nonprofit world, only 20 percent of leaders at the top of organizations are women. In both talks, Sandberg encourages women to do what they would if they were not afraid. She doesn't sugarcoat how hard it is to be a female leader, but she does encourage women to support one another and to share their personal stories about upward mobility in the male-dominated business world.

"Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg $24.95
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"The Career Advice You Probably Didn't Get" by Susan Colantuono

Takeaways: In her TED talk, Colantuono brings a disturbing fact to our attention. While women represent 50% of middle management and professional positions, the percentage of women at the top of those organizations is less than a third of that. Colantuono discusses how leadership manifests at every level and why many capable leaders are stuck in middle management.

If you're feeling like your career is stalled but that you've exhibited skills and accomplishments above your pay grade and made your intention to excel within your company known, then Colantuono's talk is a must-see. It's time to end the cycle of more-than-capable people being passed over for C-level positions.

"A Good Time to Be a Girl" by Helena Morrissey $24.99
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"An Interview With the Founders of Black Lives Matter"

Takeaways: In this TED Talk, the founders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, share what they've learned about leadership in a conversation with Mia Birdsong. Tometi talks about delegating to her team and learning "that different people contribute different strengths, and in order for [an entire] team to flourish, [you] have to allow them to share and allow them to shine."

Perhaps most importantly, these three women share the things that inspire them and give them hope despite facing difficult challenges such as systemic racism and wealth inequality. This TED Talk is a must-listen for anyone in need of motivation to spark social change and lead a movement. From writing a Facebook post that launched a movement to organizing successful events, these women know a thing or two about leadership.

"What I Know for Sure" by Oprah Winfrey $24.99
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"3 Lessons on Success From an Arab Businesswoman" by Leila Hoteit

Takeaways: In this TED Talk, successful Arab businessperson Leila Hoteit reflects on grappling with how to answer a difficult question posed by her tenacious young daughter about the prominence of powerful women. In answering her daughter's question, Hoteit shares the lessons she's learned about being a woman succeeding in male-dominated industries in a male-centric culture.

Her lessons include 1. "Convert their sh*t into your fuel." 2. "Work your life to keep work out of your life." 3. "Join forces and don't compete." Hoteit's TED Talk is required listening for inspiration to not give and to continue to push boundaries, whether they be professional or cultural.

"Thinking in Bets" by Annie Duke $24.99
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"My Year of Saying Yes to Everything" by Shonda Rhimes

Takeaways: The woman behind the popular television shows Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder shares the lessons she learned after a year of saying yes to anything that scared her. In this expansion of her hilarious and poignant memoir, Year of Yes, the wildly successful Shonda Rhimes talks about how she faced and overcame her fears.

"A dream job is not about dreaming," says Rhimes in this 19-minute speech. "It's all job, all work, all reality, all blood, all sweat, no tears," she adds. Rhimes talks about how work/life balance is an essential part of being a strong leader while acknowledging the difficulty in turning away from your phone for 15 minutes in this insightful TED Talk.

"Year of Yes" by Shonda Rhimes $24.99
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This story was originally published on July 16, 2015, and has since been updated.

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