Leadership Lessons from U2

Posted 10.02.2009

U2-1 Any week you can check something off your bucket list is a good week.  This was one of those weeks for me as I checked off a long held goal of seeing U2 in concert. Bono and his band mates are on a six week tour and they stopped at FedEx field here in the DC area to rock the house. Thanks to some really nice long term planning on my wife’s part (she bought tickets for my birthday back in April), the two of us  were there.  I’ve been to countless concerts in my life and (I don’t think it’s just the recency effect speaking here) this one was the best.  (In case you’re U2-2wondering what they’re playing on this tour, here’s a very cool web site with the set list and links to performances of each song.)  The show that U2 put on was a combination of rock concert, multimedia extravaganza,  political rally, massive party and religious revival.  And, oh yeah,  anytime somebody is keeping 90,000 people standing up for two and a half hours singing, dancing and completely engaged there’s probably something to be learned about leadership.

While it’s unlikely that most of us are going to be global rock stars anytime soon, I saw some great leadership lessons from Bono and the band that I want to pass on for your consideration.

Think Big: 
When you see U2 in a setting like FedEx Field on a 160 foot high stage set called The Claw  completely holding the audience rapt, they seem bigger than life. The day after the concert I was listening to some of their songs on my IPod and the cover art that was displayed was a picture of the band in their U2-3 late teens or early 20’s. Were they thinking about being a global force back then?  Who knows, but I doubt it.  As Steve Jobs is famous for having said, you can never connect the dots in advance, it’s only in reverse that you can see how one thing led to another.  The point with U2 is they clearly haven’t put any limits on themselves in terms of what they can do with their music. One thing has led to another and here they are – absolutely huge. Leaders think big.

Keep It Fresh:  It’s kind of hard to believe but U2 first came together 33 years ago and you could argue they’re as successful as they’ve ever been.  How have they done it? The first thing is they have a ton of talent but I think the second is they’ve kept themselves fresh over the years by playing with different styles of music, new technologies and working with different producers.  In the language of business, they have continuously innovated while staying true to their core competency. Leaders keep it fresh.

Have a Mission:  These days U2 is known almost as much for their activism on behalf of Africa and the politically oppressed in countries like Burma and Iran as they are for their music. Bono has leveraged his platform as front man for one of the world’s most popular bands to get donor governments to forgive African debt so that that money can be used for health care, education and other purposes on the continent.  At FedEx this week, the band dedicated one song to Iranian protesters and another to Aung San Suu Kyi a Burmese leader and dissident who has been under house arrest by the military junta in her country for the past 20 years. Leaders use their platform for missions that matter.

Recruit People Who Can Help:  Since this concert was in DC there were a lot of politicians in the house and Bono spent time from the stage to thank the ones who have helped in the band’s work for Africa.  So, as the Washington Post pointed out, only in DC would Nancy Pelosi and Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten both get shout outs from the stage at a rock concert. There are two points for leaders here. The first is recruit the people who can help you with your mission and don’t get hung up on their points of view on other issues as long as they’re willing to help. The second point is when they help you, thank them and thank them in public.

Make It Fun:  Most leaders are not going to have the multimedia resources that U2 does to make things fun and interesting for their audience.  While all of that was cool, I think the real fun of the show was the way Bono and the band interacted with the audience and the way they got the audience involved. It’s more fun when you get to participate at some level and feel like you’re a part of it.  Even if you don’t have a state of the art 360 degree jumbotron at your disposal, there are things you can do as leader to make it fun for your people by getting them involved in ways that connect with them.  Even in a tough economy, work can still be fun. Leaders figure out how to make it fun.