Best TED Talks for Engineering Managers and Leaders

As an engineering manager, there is a lot to learn and master from leadership to coaching. TED Talks are a great resource for learning.

Here I’ve curated the top 12 TED talks for engineering managers and leaders. Most of the descriptions are taken from the videos. All links are to YouTube.

Top 5 Most Referenced and Watched videos useful for Engineering Leaders

“The puzzle of motivation” by Dan Pink

Published on Aug 25, 2009

Description: Career analyst Dan Pink examines the puzzle of motivation, starting with a fact that social scientists know but most managers don’t: Traditional rewards aren’t always as effective as we think. Listen for illuminating stories — and maybe, a way forward.

Key takeaways

  • Dan Pink makes the case that extrinsic motivators e.g. financial incentives don’t lead to better performance and can have a negative impact on overall performance.
  • There is a gap between what business does and what science knows. Rewards narrow our focus and concentrate the mind. This not ideal for creative 21st-century work that requires cognitive skills.
  • Instead intrinsic motivators that work better are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Daniel Pink has a follow-on book that goes into more detail called “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

“Why we do what we do” by Tony Robbins

Published on Jan 16, 2007

Description: Tony Robbins discusses the “invisible forces” that make us do what we do — and high-fives Al Gore in the front row.

In this TED talk, Tony Robbins explains how “effective leaders have the ability to consistently move themselves and others to action because they understand the ‘invisible forces’ that shape us.”

Key takeaways: What is it that shapes us? When we fail to achieve something was it the lack of resources? The defining factor is often instead a lack of resourcefulness! If we have the right emotion we can find a way to get ourselves to do and accomplish anything.

Every moment you are considering

  • What am I going to focus on?
  • What does it mean?
  • What are you going to do?

Tony Robbins believes there are 6 human needs: certainty, significance, variety, love/connection, growth, and contribution. He explains how each influences our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and actions.

“How great leaders inspire action” by Simon Sinek

Published on May 4, 2010

Description: Simon Sinek presents a simple but powerful model for how leaders inspire action, starting with a golden circle and the question “Why?” His examples include Apple, Martin Luther King, and the Wright brothers — and as a counterpoint Tivo, which (until a recent court victory that tripled its stock price) appeared to be struggling.

Key takeaways: Simon Sinek presents a model to explain why are some people and companies more successful than others. All the great and inspiriting leaders think, act and speak in the complete opposite way of everyone else.

The model he proposes he calls “the golden circle”: Why, how, and what. Most people start with what then go to how, and great leaders start with why. This model explains why some org and leaders are able to inspire while others are not because “people dont buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

He also wrote a book that expands on this topic: “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.”

“Lead Like The Great Conductors” by Itay Talgam

Published on Oct 21, 2009

Description: An orchestra conductor faces the ultimate leadership challenge: creating perfect harmony without saying a word. In this charming talk, Itay Talgam demonstrates the unique styles of six great 20th-century conductors, illustrating crucial lessons for all leaders.

Key takeaways:  Itay Talgam plays eight different clips of conductors. For Itay, the joy of the conductor is in enabling other people. He shows how the different techniques of the conductors work. In one case the conductor provides very clear direction that allows little interpretation. Generally, however, the conductor creates a space for his orchestra to perform. He gives examples where the worst thing the conductor can do is give them such clear instruction as it would eliminate the team working together and figuring things out themselves. The conductor should create a process and a space for the team. For Itay, the highest achievement seems to be being able to do without doing, and letting the music happen by itself without interference.

“Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” by Amy Cuddy

Published on Oct 1, 2012

Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy argues that “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can boost feelings of confidence, and might have an impact on our chances for success. (Note: Some of the findings presented in this talk have been referenced in an ongoing debate among social scientists about robustness and reproducibility.

There is a follow-on book to this TED talk also: “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.”

Other Highly Recommend TED Talks for Engineering Leaders

“What makes us feel good about our work?” by Dan Ariely

Published on Apr 10, 2013

Description: What motivates us to work? Contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn’t just money. But it’s not exactly joy either. It seems that most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely presents two eye-opening experiments that reveal our unexpected and nuanced attitudes toward meaning in our work.

There is a companion book to this talk: “Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations.

”Dare to Disagree” by Margaret Heffernan

Published on Aug 6, 2012

Most people instinctively avoid conflict, but as Margaret Heffernan shows us, good disagreement is central to progress. She illustrates (sometimes counterintuitively) how the best partners aren’t echo chambers — and how great research teams, relationships and businesses allow people to deeply disagree.

”Listen, Learn… Then Lead” by Stanley McChrystal

Published on Apr 6, 2011

Four-star general Stanley McChrystal shares what he learned about leadership over his decades in the military. How can you build a sense of shared purpose among people of many ages and skill sets? By listening and learning — and addressing the possibility of failure.

“Got a Wicked Problem to Solve? First, Tell me How you Make Toast” by Tom Wujec

Published on Feb 5, 2015

Making toast doesn’t sound very complicated — until someone asks you to draw the process, step by step. Tom Wujec loves asking people and teams to draw how they make toast, because the process reveals unexpected truths about how we can solve our biggest, most complicated problems at work. Learn how to run this exercise yourself, and hear Wujec’s surprising insights from watching thousands of people draw toast.

“The Key To Success? Grit” by Angela Lee Duckworth

Published on May 9, 2013

Leaving a high-flying job in consulting, Angela Lee Duckworth took a job teaching math to seventh graders in a New York public school. She quickly realized that IQ wasn’t the only thing separating the successful students from those who struggled. Here, she explains her theory of “grit” as a predictor of success.

”How To Start A Movement” by Derek Sivers

Published on Apr 1, 2010

With help from some surprising footage, Derek Sivers explains how movements really get started. (Hint: it takes two.)

“The Happy Secret To Better Work” by Shawn Achor

Published on Feb 1, 2012

We believe that we should work to be happy, but could that be backwards? In this fast-moving and entertaining talk from TEDxBloomington, psychologist Shawn Achor argues that actually, happiness inspires productivity.

“How To Save The World (Or At Least Yourself) From Bad Meetings” by David Grady

Published on Nov 17, 2014

An epidemic of bad, inefficient, overcrowded meetings is plaguing the world’s businesses — and making workers miserable. David Grady has some ideas on how to stop it.

“Everyday Leadership” by Drew Dudley

Published on Aug 15, 2013

We have all changed someone’s life — usually without even realizing it. In this funny talk, Drew Dudley calls on all of us to celebrate leadership as the everyday act of improving each other’s lives.

“How to speak so that people want to listen” by Julian Treasure

Published on Jun 27, 2014

Have you ever felt like you’re talking, but nobody is listening? Here’s Julian Treasure to help you fix that. As the sound expert demonstrates some useful vocal exercises and shares tips on how to speak with empathy, he offers his vision for a sonorous world of listening and understanding.

Missing Any?

I’m sure there are lots of other outstanding TED talks. What did I miss? Let me know in the comments below!

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