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Being Explicit About Virtues: Analysing TED Talks and Integrating Scholarship to Advance Virtues-Based Leadership Development


Virtues, anchored in the ancient and robust philosophy of virtue ethics, inform and enable good leadership. However, we are reticent to speak of virtues within the business domain, which hinders virtues-based leadership development. To demonstrate how virtues inform good leadership, albeit usually implicitly, I analyze 25 TED talks promised to make viewers ‘better’ leaders for direct and indirect reference to virtues. My findings illustrate that virtues are implicitly woven throughout popular leadership discourse, but that they are rarely stated explicitly. This is a problem because to develop virtues they need to be explicitly understood and consciously practiced, which necessitates redressing the reticence to speak of virtues and focusing efforts on educating, training, and developing the virtues that enable good leadership. This article advances virtues-based leadership development by proffering a framework of higher-order virtues that we need to make explicit in efforts to develop good leadership. My discussion of the higher-order virtues integrates evidence from the TED talks and extant scholarship and proposes ways to train and develop each virtue.

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  1. 1.

    Virtue (singular) implies a unified essence or internal inclination, whereas virtues (plural) refer to discrete behaviors and dispositions.

  2. 2.

    Truthfulness is not considered cardinal by Riggio et al (2010) or universal by Peterson & Seligman (2004), rather it can be understood as a lower-order virtue associated with courage. Therefore, I omitted it from my framework of higher-order virtues.

  3. 3.

    TED viewership and history accessed January 2020 from:


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Correspondence to Toby Newstead.

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Appendix A

TED Talks analyzed

  1. 1.

    Adam Grant—Are you a giver or a taker? TED@IBM, 2016. 6.84 million views, 38 languages. Recommended by

  2. 2.

    Brené Brown – The power of vulnerability. TEDxHouston, 2010. 44.6 million views, 52 languages. Recommended by, TED most popular talks

  3. 3.

    Charlene Li – Efficient leadership in the digital era. TED@IBM, 2014. 81, 991 views, 1 language. Recommended by:

  4. 4.

    Dan Ariely – What makes us feel good about our work? TEDxRiodelaPlata, 2012. 6.40 million views, 37 languages. Recommended by

  5. 5.

    Dan Pink – The puzzle of motivation. TEDGlobal, 2009. 24.8 million views, 44 languages. Recommended by, TED most popular talks

  6. 6.

    David Logan – Tribal leadership. TEDxUSC, 2009. 1.67 million views, 25 languages. Recommended by TED leadership playlist

  7. 7.

    Derek Sivers – How to start a movement. TED, 2010. 8.44 million views, 65 languages. Recommended by TED leadership playlist

  8. 8.

    Drew Dudley – Everyday leadership. TEDxToronto, 2010 4.43 million views, 38 languages. Recommended by, TED leadership playlist

  9. 9.

    Fileds Wicker-Murin – Learning from leadership’s missing manual. TEDSalon, London, 2009. 1.20 million views, 20 languages. Recommended by TED leadership playlist

  10. 10.

    Itay Talgam – Lead like the great conductors. TEDGlobal, 2009. 3.52 million views, 34 languages. Recommended by TED leadership playlist

  11. 11.

    Jacqueline Novogratz – Inspiring a life of immersion. TEDWomen, 2010. 990,442 views, 27 languages. Recommended by TED leadership playlist

  12. 12.

    John Clarkson – How should a CEO lead? Musical exploration. TED@BCG Berlin, 2014. No TED stats, 18, 000 views on YouTube, 0 transcripts. Recommended by

  13. 13.

    John Wooden – The difference between winning and succeeding. TED, 2001. 6.36 million views, 29 languages. Recommended by TED leadership playlist

  14. 14.

    Margaret Heffernan – Dare to disagree. TEDGlobal, 2012. 3.85 million views, 35 languages. Recommended by, TED leadership playlist

  15. 15.

    Ricardo Semler – How to run a company with (almost) no rules, TEDGlobal, 2014. 3.14 million views, 30 languages. Recommended by

  16. 16.

    Rick Warren – A life of purpose, TED, 2006. 3.90 million views, 31 languages. Recommended by TED leadership playlist

  17. 17.

    Rosalinde Torres – What it takes to be a great leader, TED@BCG San Francisco, 2013. 5.05 million views, 35 languages. Recommended by,

  18. 18.

    Shawn Achor – The happy secret to better work, TEDxBloomington, 2011. 21 million views, 48 languages. Recommended by,, TED most popular talks

  19. 19.

    Sheryl Sandberg – Why we have too few women leaders, TEDWomen, 2010. 9.79 million views, 46 languages. Recommended by TED

  20. 20.

    Sheryl Sandberg + Pat Mitchell – So we leaned in, how what? TEDWomen, 2013. 2.66 million, 29 languages. Recommended by TED

  21. 21.

    Simon Sinek – How great leaders inspire action, TEDxPuget Sound, 2009. 47.4 million views, 48 languages. Recommended by, TED leadership playlist, TED most popular talks

  22. 22.

    Simon Sinek – Why good leaders make you feel safe. TED, 2014. 11.6 million views, 39 languages. Recommended by

  23. 23.

    Stanley Mcchrystal – Listen, learn, then lead. TED, 2011 2.97 million views, 33 languages. Recommended by, TED leadership playlist

  24. 24.

    Susan Cain – The power of introverts. TED, 2012. 24.6 million views, 47 languages. Recommended by TED most popular talks

  25. 25.

    Tim Harford – Trial, error, and the god complex. TEDGlobal, 2011. 2.02 million views, 34 languages. Recommended by TED leadership playlist

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Newstead, T. Being Explicit About Virtues: Analysing TED Talks and Integrating Scholarship to Advance Virtues-Based Leadership Development. J Bus Ethics (2021).

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  • Leadership development
  • Good leadership
  • Virtues-based leadership