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Nancy Koehn

Nancy Koehn

Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School and author, most recently, of The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times.

Bono at 50: The leader we need

Today, Bono, the U2 singer, global activist and one of the most powerful leaders on the world stage, turns 50. At this important milestone, it is worth briefly taking stock of his journey thus far--a journey of purpose, impact, passion, and humor. It is a path with lessons for leaders from all walks of life.

Let's begin by considering all the roads Bono (who was born Paul David Hewson in Dublin) did NOT take as he has traveled these last five decades. He has never been the CEO of a major company. He has never held public office or scored a big campaign contribution. He did not graduate from an elite university. He did not make most of his considerable wealth in the global equity or debt markets.

So what has Bono been up to that accounts for his enormous influence--influence that extends from the 100,000-seat stadiums that U2 plays to the White House, Vatican, and Downing Street to debt forgiveness and medical aid to Africa? After all, he was not born with cash or connections. His father, Bob Hewson, who was a postal worker, used to tell him not to dream so he would not be disappointed. So how did a curious, restless boy whose mother died when he was 14, leaving him with what he later called a "God-shaped hole" at his core, become a leader who could convince Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Jesse Helms to increase America's aid to Africa more than fourfold, from around $2 billion in 2000 to $8 billion in 2009? Whose Global Fund has committed $19 billion to fighting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in 144 countries?

Bono's leadership journey has its roots in U2, the Irish band that he and several schoolmates, including Larry Mullen, Jr., David Evans (who later became known as "The Edge"), and Adam Clayton, founded in 1976. The story of U2's success is one of commerce as much as art. At its center is the creation and stewardship of a very powerful brand, a brand that, in the midst of an ongoing perfect storm of turbulence in the music distribution business, is still going strong around the world.

Another important part of U2's success has been the very profitable business model that the four musicians and their savvy manager Paul McGuiness have developed. It is a model that keeps evolving--usually a step or two ahead of the gales of creative destruction buffeting the larger industry--and one that has benefited from a lot of experimentation, ongoing reinvention, and a consistent willingness to challenge industry standards.

But brands and business models are only as good as the product and people behind them. The U2 team, including musicians, management, administrative staff and others, is a vibrant, highly productive organization focused on producing relevant, world-class offerings--from CDs to stadium tours to films--that sell briskly in virtually every market on earth. Worldwide, the band has sold more than 140 million records. Its 2005 "Vertigo" tour grossed $389 million, second only to the Rolling Stones for a single-tour gross.

Leading this enterprise has meant keeping the key team members motivated, engaged and growing--as human beings as well as music makers--for almost 34 years. Growing the organization four gangly teenagers - who in 1979 had to sell one of their instruments in order to buy passage home after a short London tour--to one of the most successful rock bands in history has demanded abiding faith, a steady stream of courage, huge reserves of personal energy, and a disciplined openness to the world as he continues to meet it.

From this solid foundation, Bono has acquired great agency. Not only money for himself and sway with his customers--music fans of all ages, shapes and sizes--but also extraordinary access to other movers and shakers as well as influence on a wide range of issues outside rock music. One of the most compelling aspects of Bono's leadership is how he has chosen to use the authority that has accompanied business success. He has decided, over and over again, to put his artistic, political, strategic, and spiritual muscle to work to alleviate suffering in the world's poorest countries.

He talks a lot about justice as animating his work and spirit. But this is perhaps too abstract a term for what Bono seems to be doing on a daily basis. One of the most important things he does every day is to keep educating himself on the people, economies, and pressing problems of developing countries. Many of the experts, including the developmental economist Jeffrey Sachs, have commented on how thoroughly the singer-turned activist does his homework.

A second, important part of Bono's days is leading a spectrum of organizations like the ONE campaign and RED that each advance his broader mission. This involves coordinating these groups and monitoring their progress. As of late 2009, the Global Fund had helped support antiretroviral treatment for 2.5 million people; helped provide 105 million HIV counseling and testing sessions; and helped finance 4.5 million instances of basic care and support services for orphans and vulnerable children. Bono's leadership also involves selling these organizations and their work to all kinds of stakeholders.

Amidst all this activity, Bono keeps turning his energy to making and distributing music. This is part poetry, part packaging for the band and himself (he once said he had to learn how to be a rock star), part dollars-and-cents, and part competitive drive. His work as a musician is as central to his humanitarian efforts as the money he helps raise or the politicians he wins over for debt relief. At the same time, his activism has become part of the U2 brand, animating the way that millions of people think about the group and their offerings.

Herein lie several lessons. First, all successful organizational leaders--from presidents to police chiefs to CEOs--wield power, often in excess of that granted them by their office. How such individuals decide, explicitly or not, to use this control is a question of grave importance for the world today. The most important problems confronting us now, including a precarious global financial system and an equally vulnerable environmental system, do not come in separate buckets labeled "business" and "public policy." These are challenges that are smashing through older boundaries and helping redefine organizational place and mission.

Second, as Bono seems to understand, these issues demand a new kind of leadership, one based not in aging hierarchies and status systems but in humility, an ardent desire to learn and a respect for the individuals that organizations serve.

Third, individual leaders have to keep getting right with themselves about their own path and impact.

Finally, effective leadership today demands a willingness to stay open, not only to one's own enterprise but also to the teeming global village around it. Bono, like Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago, has not let himself become isolated in an elite atmosphere. He has used his touring and travels as classrooms to help him understand the hopes, dreams and tribulations of his fellow citizens, whom he often calls his brothers and sisters. And he has used this knowledge to light his way, his music and his leadership.

Happy Birthday, Bono.

By Nancy Koehn

 |  May 10, 2010; 10:38 AM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Posted by: albedo0_373hotmailcom | May 12, 2010 5:32 PM
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PGR88 said: "Sorry to dump on the ridiculous Bono-Love fest going on here . . . Bono is a nice chap, and U2 has some smashing music but does anyone else feel its all a bit fake?"

Um . . . No.

PGR88, you don't have to agree with everything Bono does (I don't), and you don't have to like U2 (especially late '90s U2) to still think Bono is the real deal. He is using his celebrity to champion causes he believes in, rather effectively it seems. You can disagree with him or even dislike him if you want, but I'm not sure how you can call him a fake.

Posted by: tomguy1 | May 11, 2010 5:52 PM
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Says all there is to know about Bono. He IS the record.

Posted by: greg3 | May 11, 2010 2:56 PM
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If this is the sort of leadership scholarship coming out of HBS, I think some people need to ask for a refund.

Bono's humanitarian goals are noble, but the money to fund these initiatives comes at the expense of productive western taxpayers, and it benefits African kleptocrats as much as it does the downtrodden. Do that on this side of the pond, and you're guilty of embezzlement and ruined financially. Do it there, and you get what? More free money.

The only force that will help Africa emerge from the dark ages is... Africa. African leaders need to find and embrace their own enlightenment. It took Western Civ a couple of centuries to do it. With today's technology, it would take Africa only a couple of generations. If only it weren't so corrupt.

Until then, it's all good money after bad, and sorry...the western taxpayer is tapped out.

Posted by: chambers14 | May 11, 2010 2:29 PM
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First off, Happy 50th, Bono. For those who want to bash him and his mates I have a personal tribute. My wife and others were in Kenya this past March on a medical mission trip and ran across Bono in the airport. Seems he was putting his considerable resources to work as these 6 women were leaving. He may not be 'your' choice, but how many among you would give millions away to those you only read about? Go ahead, I dare you (the ladies and their churches gave thou$and$ and much love, but they're not rock stars)!

Posted by: twosharps | May 11, 2010 12:43 PM
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What Hunter Thompson said about John Lennon in Fear and Loathing is also true of Bono. Shut up and sing!

Posted by: carlbatey | May 11, 2010 11:31 AM
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Not a fan of Bono here, but since it's his birthday, nice things only.

One thing he did was understood the art of compromise by working with President George Bush on increasing funding. (You line makes it sound like he outwitted George and Jesse Helms somehow) Part of the compromise is understanding that GB is not (entirely) a bad guy, and in fact, might want to do good, and hence the art of supressing the easy path of criticism to achieve the objective. None of this would have worked without having some charitable spirit towards the former President.

Too many leaders today lead with their ego and spit in the face of their adversaries which may be satisfying but not productive. Bono didn't do that.

Posted by: jhtlag1 | May 11, 2010 9:00 AM
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Mr. Bono is a hypocrite who urges the world to financially support the poor, while himself, avoiding taxation in his home country of Ireland. I would respect him if he put his wealth where his mouth is. He gets a free pass from the media and great PR.

Posted by: deniscoleman | May 11, 2010 8:00 AM
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I think what he tries is certainly better than the decadent options available to him. I keep thinking about something Paul Theroux wrote some while ago about how we help the best and the brightest Africans up and out of Africa never to return. What I got out of that article was how Bono's and Western charity keeps enabling the self-defeat of African progress. While I certainly agree that it is better to do something than nothing as far as the world's downtroddened go, I wonder what Bono's response to Theroux's reasoned criticism would be?

Posted by: citizen625 | May 11, 2010 7:48 AM
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Posted by: wakeupcall1 | May 11, 2010 7:18 AM
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Sorry to dump on the ridiculous Bono-Love fest going on here, but this is typical of the sheep and their love of celebrity show-biz activism that is so in vogue these days. All I can gleen from this article is that using one's celebrity to jet around the world, shake hands with politians (who love photo-ops with stars) and issue cliches about world-peace, Africa, and of course "green issues" is now considered leadership.

Bono is a nice chap, and U2 has some smashing music but does anyone else feel its all a bit fake?

Posted by: pgr88 | May 10, 2010 9:09 PM
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I can't understand why persuading western governments to give Africa 20 billion is considered a good thing. Why should we give their corrupt governments interest free loans which they will never pay back? In effect, it is a tax on western wealth creation for the benefit of a continent whose only contribution to the world over the last decade appears to be the Aids virus. U2 berate governments for not giving more in aid. But governments can only raise aid money from taxes - and U2 have moved all their loot to Holland to avoid paying taxes. U2 and Bono are hypocrites.

Posted by: bernardo2 | May 10, 2010 8:08 PM
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Happy Birthday. I also like the "business" model of Sean Penn who has been in Haiti, on the ground and working, since the earthquake. He doesn't do it for publicity or anything else. He really helps. Both have wonderful qualities, Penn's is truly selfless.

Posted by: pdeblin | May 10, 2010 3:22 PM
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For me, someone about to join an MBA program this fall, this write-up of the leadership skills shown by Bono was eye-opening. Perhaps aspiring managers can learn a thing or two from from people who aren't just CEOs and Presidents, but from a rock star activist as well. Great article about a great man. Happy birthday Bono!

Posted by: victory2g | May 10, 2010 2:49 PM
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@ILUVTHEBULLETS Did you not read the article? Bono's efforts with Red, the ONE Campaign, and his dealings with the Global Fund HAVE created tangible results on the ground. More than 40 million more children are attending school than were before the development of Bono's organizations, millions more people are on ARV drugs than before, mainly due to Bono's petitioning Clinton and Bush to lower the price to just 40 cents for the two pills necessary. His use of big business to include part of their profit for aid, his focus on petitioning legislators through the ONE Campaign, and his recent forays into magazine and newspaper editing to get the word to as many people as possible shows just how effective his efforts have been. Doesn't sound too naive or ignorant to me...

Posted by: andrewlane34 | May 10, 2010 2:34 PM
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He may have good intentions but what have his actions actually done for the poor of Africa? Selling red shirts and simplifying the complex web of problems in Africa, particularly endemic corruption, may appeal to the uninformed, but for the majority of us who have spent considerable time trying to work on the ground in Africa, Bono and Sach's arguments are laughable in their naivety and ignorance. Bono is just another example of a misguided celebrity activist with a huge ego. He is by no means a bad man but it would be nice if the world focused on celebrating results more than intentions. If you think Bono's work in Africa is commendable please read the Bottom Billion by Paul Collier, which in my opinion is the most balanced and scholarly approach to development in Africa.

Posted by: iluvthebullets | May 10, 2010 1:31 PM
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Happy birthday from NE DC Bono!

Posted by: johng1 | May 10, 2010 1:24 PM
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It does seem likely that, should the band decide to stop touring in the next 10 years or so, that Bono is destined for some spot like Secretary General of the U.N. Might even make that position more relevant and influential on the global stage. Either way, he's a great man.

Posted by: bigfoot1 | May 10, 2010 12:35 PM
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