What would Bono do? Lessons in leadership and activism from the world's most successful band.
By Michael J. Fanuele
U2 wraps up each show of its current world tour with stunning portraits of the most consequential women in history, or as Bono defiantly says, “herstory.” Flashing in 7.6k resolution on the largest high-def screen the world has ever seen are the faces of Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and Hillary Clinton. These are some of the nearly hundred women to whom Bono pays tribute, calling them “women who stood up or sat down for their rights, who insisted and persisted, who light the way.”
This is classic fare for U2, a band that has always brought some church revival to its rock ’n’ roll, preaching while playing. AIDS, poverty, political violence — these are the scourges against which U2 rallies its fans. And if you’ve been to this service, you know how rousing it can be.
When I first saw U2 perform a decade ago, Bono asked us each to work for justice from the “bridges of Selma to the peaks of Kilimanjaro” as every African nation’s flag unfurled in the arena and The Edge plucked the first bars of the band’s next anthem. At that moment, I enlisted — though I had no idea what I would actually do. I could write a check to Amnesty International. I could embrace the nearest stranger. I felt compelled to do something, anything. I was moved. At that moment, with those people, I believed we could make the world a better place.
U2 isn’t only a circus of soft feelings, however. Its members have actually accomplished a great deal of good, raising awareness and money (by some estimates half a billion dollars) for myriad charitable organizations. They’ve used their celebrity to lobby governments, to direct the world’s attention to Africa, ravaged by disease, war and poverty. Bono is the only rock star ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, a nomination he received three times. Even President George W. Bush couldn’t resist Bono’s entreaties. The two worked together to bring record levels of foreign aid to Africa. “Bono floored me,” Bush said, “with his knowledge, his energy and his faith.” That’s Bono: flooring world leaders and mobilizing their people.
So how does Bono do it? What is the magic of this supernatural shaman? What spirit does he wield that possesses populations and politicians, not only helping hearts blossom, but changing the very behavior of communities and governments?
Well, it’s inspiration — and no band does it better than U2. In fact, U2 provides lessons in inspiration for all who aspire to move a crowd, from political leaders and corporate executives to teachers and coaches and parents. How do they do it? How does U2 move masses? In addition to the raw power of some irresistible tunes, U2 employs three “notes of inspiration” that sway audiences:
• First, U2 sets grand ambitions. Its members didn’t want to be a rock band. They wanted to be the greatest rock band in the world, and when they achieved that status, they wanted to be something even bigger: to be an instrument for social justice. They want to end the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies. They want to eliminate malaria. They want to eradicate racism and stamp out gender inequality. These are not modest goals; in fact, they’re slightly preposterous. But perhaps it’s the very audacity of these ambitions that inspires conviction. It’s hard to generate an emotional response when talking to the sensible parts of a person. Al Gore had a plan to reduce carbon emissions. He lost. Barack Obama promised to lower the very tides of the oceans. He won. People are moved to do big things, and so as leaders, don’t fear the grand and the audacious and the slightly ridiculous. These are the goals that stretch our imaginations.
• Next, U2 is obsessed with action. Pray. Dance. Sing. Donate. Buy. Write. Protest. U2 is a band of verbs. Like Nike, its first priority is what it wants people to do, not what it wants people to believe. It’s a lesson behavioral psychologists have been practicing for decades: change behavior and beliefs follow; the reverse is too difficult. Religions have known this even longer, encouraging fasting and tithing and missionary work. As Bono himself said, “God doesn’t want prayers; he wants alms.” Leaders should learn from this: Don’t waste your time trying to get your team to buy into your agenda or understand your vision; instead, be dead-clear about what you want them to do. According to Daniel McGinn in his book “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed,” this “direction giving” language is every bit as motivating as the grander, gauzier stuff.
• Finally, U2 inspires because it is authentic. A leader can’t hope to move an audience if that audience sniffs a phony. As a band that grew up through the Troubles, hearing bombs explode on Dublin streets and losing friends to sectarian violence, U2 has the moral permission to preach, as it did in Paris as the first performers after the terrorist attack at the Bataclan. “We’re a life cult,” Bono said that week, making it clear the band was coming back to the city as the anti-ISIS. It was coming to do the hard work of healing a community, turning fear and hate into courage and love.
Bono is a creation, of course, a rock ’n’ roll avatar constructed by a teenage Paul Hewson. And yet, “he” is so comfortable in his Bono skin, self-possessed and certain, sunglasses always on. Leaders can learn from that confident expression of character. Know yourself, for sure, but express yourself as a one-of-a-kind entity, a character with passions and quirks all your own. In that display of particular personality comes the authenticity necessary for inspiration.
Ambition. Action. Authenticity. These are the critical elements of inspiration that U2 manifests so powerfully. They’re on glorious display when Bono enters an arena, but they can be displayed by each of us, every day, in the conference rooms and classrooms where the hard work of building a better world gets done. As Bono remarked, “You put on the leather pants and the pants start telling you what to do.”
Michael J. Fanuele is a marketing consultant who most recently served as chief creative officer at General Mills. He’s writing a book about inspiration.