Honoring Dr. King: When U2 Wouldn’t Back Down

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

– Attributed to Edmund Burke

In honor of the Reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m posting an article I wrote that was published in The Economic Times in India and in the American Management Association’s Moving Ahead.  The article in part describes the time before a concert in Arizona when U2 received a letter that stated Bono, the band’s lead singer, would be killed if the band played the song Pride, which honors the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The FBI told U2 it believed the threat was not a hoax.

Although I don’t know for certain, I suspect that Bono reflected on Dr. King’s choice to speak out in the face of death threats.  Dr. King had the courage of his convictions and was willing to risk death to push back the evils of prejudice.  Now, Bono had to decide if he too was willing to speak out against evil and risk death because of it.

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The rock band U2 has had a phenomenal run since it came together in 1976. It has won a remarkable 22 Grammy awards, more than any band in history.  Critics rave over U2’s music and fans worldwide can’t seem to get enough of its songs and concert appearances. All the signs indicate that U2 is at the top of its game and will be going strong for the foreseeable future.  Why has U2 been together for more than 30 years when most other bands eventually fall apart? Understanding why U2 has thrived for so long provides insight into the factors that make groups of all types and sizes thrive, including teams and organizations from committees to Fortune 500 companies.

U2 is comprised of four band members: lead singer Bono, lead guitar player “Edge,” bass guitar player Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr.  The band members have known each other since they were teenagers in Dublin, Ireland.

Bono has said that the way the band functions is even more extraordinary than the band’s music. He has described the band as more of an organism than an organization.  Several aspects of the band’s culture standout: (1) a shared mission and set of values; (2) a participatory, consensus-oriented decision-making style; and (3) a caring community.

Shared Mission and Values

To begin with, the members of U2 share a vision of their mission and values.  While you might expect a band’s mission is to achieve commercial success measured by #1 hits and concert attendance, U2’s mission is to improve the world through its music and influence. Bono calls it “the spark.” He feels it sets U2 apart from many other bands. U2’s songs address themes the band members believe are important to promote such as human rights and social justice.  Bono has described himself as a traveling salesman of ideas within songs.

The band values excellence in the music it produces and in its concert performances. Bono has described this value as a desire to achieve the band’s potential.  He distinguishes it from envy, which is an unhealthy state of mind that exists when people want what others have in a competitive sense. U2’s members value continuous improvement to achieve their own potential, never feeling satisfied that they can’t become even better.

Participative, Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making Style

U2 is further unified by its participative, consensus-oriented decision-making style.  The members of U2 argue relentlessly over their music, which reflects their passion for excellence. Bono has stated that this approach is frustrating at times but that U2 feels it is necessary to achieve excellence.

The key here is that the band’s members appreciate each other’s strengths. Bono has said that although he hears melodies in his head, he is unable to transfer them into written music.  Because he considers himself a “lousy guitar player and an even lousier piano player,” he relies on his fellow band members and recognizes that they are integral to his success.  To Bono, U2 is “the best example of how to rely on others.”

A Caring Community

Like all human beings, the members of U2 have experienced difficult periods in their lives.  These experiences have shaped them in important ways. Bono’s mother died when he was 14 years old. Bono describes the period following her death as one in which he felt alone and abandoned. Although he longed for the emotional support of a family, his grief-stricken father was unable to comfort his son. To some extent, Bono’s desire for family was met through his friends and getting to know their families.

Having experienced what it was like to suffer alone and how the support of a family could help an individual make it through difficult periods, when Larry Mullen’s mother died when he was 16 years old, Bono reached out to console him.  This began a close, supportive friendship.  When Edge went through a difficult divorce, the band members were there to support him. When Adam Clayton became addicted to alcohol and drugs, the band members reached out to help him recover.  Bono has stated that when one of the band members is in need, the band rallies around to support him and they put that need above the performance of the band. It’s no wonder that one of U2’s most popular songs is entitled, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own.”

The most dramatic example of this came when U2 campaigned during the 1980s for the observance of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in America. Bono received a death threat that warned him not to sing the song “Pride (In the Name of Love),” a song about the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., at an upcoming concert.  Bono described in an interview that as he sang the song, he closed his eyes.  At the end of a verse when he opened his eyes Bono discovered Adam Clayton literally standing in front of him to shield him from potential harm.

Bono describes U2 as a tight-knit family and community.  He has said that “people with a strong sense of family and community…are always very strong people.”   The commitment to support one another extends beyond the four members of the band.  The members of U2 are part of a larger community that includes their families, crew members and collaborators. Many of them have known each other for decades.

The economic profits from U2’s work are split equally between the four band members and their long-time manager Paul McGuiness. That might surprise some. Given Bono’s status as a megastar, it would not be inconceivable if he claimed more than an equal share of the band’s profits. What better way to show your team members that you value them than to treat them and their unique contribution as economic equals?

Application

Creating a culture that emulates the practices of U2 can unite your group and motivate its members. Doing so will increase trust, cooperation and esprit de corps among your group members.  Three areas to focus on are as follows:

  • Identify your group’s identity (i.e. mission and/or values) that makes the members of your group feel proud,
  • Develop a participative, consensus-oriented decision-making style that makes everyone feel that they are informed and that they have a voice in the decision-making process, and
  • Nurture a caring community where everyone feels valued, especially during the inevitable difficult periods of life.

Notice that each of the foregoing application points includes the word “feel.” How employees feel about their work determines how much effort they put into their day-to-day responsibilities.  Feeling “fired up” or “burned out” are emotional states. Research from the Corporate Executive Board has shown that emotional factors are four times as effective as rational factors when it comes to the amount of effort employees put into their work.

The shared mission and values, participative, consensus-oriented decision-making style, and caring community is a powerful combination that has held U2 together as a band for more than three decades.  The resulting longevity has given them time to evolve their music and performances in refreshing and innovative directions. What could this kind of unity do for your organization?

All quotes in the article are from Bono by Michka Assayas.

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4 thoughts on “Honoring Dr. King: When U2 Wouldn’t Back Down

  1. Hi Michael- Enjoyed your post and your blog overall very much; particularly how you include examples outside of corporate life and the workplace that are applicable to the world we all work in. There can be times practitioners untentionally become myopic and don’t look outside their immediate world for applicability and inspiration, so thanks for reminding us of the larger function work plays in sustaining society. And thanks also for the great Talent Economy guest blogs you write for HCI! Best, Joy

  2. Joy,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and for your words of encouragement. I’m delighted to partner with you and your colleagues at the Human Capital Institute. I consider it an honor to write blog posts for Talent Economy and chair HCI’s annual Employee Engagement conference.

    Best wishes to you on your endeavors in the year ahead. If I can ever be of assistance, please let me know.

    Warmly,
    Michael

  3. Hi Michael, Terrific article. Thank you for sharing the Dr. King story with me. And just as importantly, how U2 works together. In my mind, each of them is much more than a musician, they are great leaders. Best regards, Steve