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The secret of U2’s success

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This post is an excerpt from “Connection Culture” (April 2015, Association for Talent Development) by Michael Lee Stallard Jason Pankau and Katharine P. Stallard, which is publishing this Thursday. Michael Lee Stallard is president of E Pluribus Partners, a leadership consulting and training firm based in Greenwich, Conn. Follow him on his blogTwitter, FacebookGoogle+ or on LinkedIn.

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U2 began as a rock band that people booed and laughed at. Now, after receiving its 22nd Grammy Award in 2005, U2 has more than any band in history. It recently surpassed the Rolling Stones’s record for the highest revenue grossing concert tour ever. Critics rave over the band’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. So how did this group rise to such lofty heights, and what can we learn from its success?

The way U2 functions is even more extraordinary than its music. The band’s four members — lyricist and lead singer Bono, lead guitar player “the Edge,” bass guitar player Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. –have known one another since they were teenagers in Dublin, Ireland. Bono has described the band as more of an organism than an organization, and several of its attributes contribute to this unique culture. Members value continuous improvement to achieve their own potential, always maintaining the view that they can become even better.

U2’s members share a vision of their mission and values. You might expect a band’s mission to be achieving commercial success as measured by number 1 hits and concert attendance. However, U2’s mission is to improve the world through its music and influence. Bono has described himself as a traveling salesman of ideas within songs, which address themes the band members believe are important to promote, including human rights, social justice, and matters of faith. Bono and his wife, Ali, help the poor, particularly in Africa, through their philanthropy and the organizations they’ve created.

U2’s members value one another as people and don’t just think of one another as means to an end. Bono has said that although he hears melodies in his head, he is unable to translate them into written music. Considering himself a terrible guitar and keyboard player, he relies on his fellow members to help him write the songs and praises them for their talents, which are integral to U2’s success.

Bono has also had his band members’ backs during times of trial. When Larry lost his mom in a car accident a short time after the band was formed, Bono was there to support him. Bono, who had already lost his mother, understood Larry’s pain. When U2 was offered its first recording contract on the condition that it replace Larry with a more conventional drummer, Bono told the record company executive: There’s no deal without Larry. When the Edge went through divorce, his bandmates were there to support him. When Adam showed up to a concert so stoned he couldn’t perform, the others could have thrown him overboard for letting them down. Instead, they had someone step in to cover for him, and then went on to help Adam overcome his drug and alcohol addiction.

U2 performing in 2009. Credit: SteBo/Wikipedia (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Bono’s bandmates have his back too. One of the most vivid examples of this came when U2 campaigned during the 1980s for the observance of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. Bono received a death threat that warned him not to sing “Pride (In the Name of Love),” a song about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., at an upcoming concert. The FBI considered it a credible threat. Bono described in an interview that as he sang the song, he closed his eyes. When he opened his eyes again at the end of a verse, he discovered that Adam was standing in
front of him to shield him from potential harm. Years later, when U2 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bono thanked Adam
for being willing to take a bullet for him.

Unlike many bands in which one megastar gets most of the economic profits, U2 shares its profits equally among the four band members and their long-time manager. This further shows the value Bono has for his band members and manager. (We’re not saying that all organizations should split the company’s economic profits equally; simply recognize that when leaders take too much it works against engaging the people they lead.)

Each member has a voice in decisions, thanks to the band’s participatory, consensus-oriented decision-making approach. If one person strongly opposes a particular action, the band won’t do it, which encourages the flow of knowledge among band members, allowing the best ideas to come to light. Their passion for excellence is also reflected in relentless arguments over their music. Bono has stated that this approach can be slow and frustrating at times, but the members of U2 believe it is necessary to achieve excellence.

These factors — which this book calls shared identity, empathy, and understanding — create a culture of connection, community, and unity among the members of U2. Bono has described the band as a tight-knit family and community. Their commitment to support one another extends beyond the four members of the band to a larger community that includes their families, crew members, and collaborators — many of whom have known each other for decades.

The secret of U2’s success is its leadership and culture. Bono connects as a leader among equals because he communicates an inspiring vision and lives it, he values people as individuals, and he gives them a voice in decision making. It is this culture of vision, value, and voice that has helped U2 achieve and sustain its superior performance.

This is a connection culture. In examining how U2 operates we see the influence a connection culture can have on the individual, as well as the group as a whole.

How about you?

An organization’s culture reflects the predominant ways of thinking, behaving, and working. To appreciate the importance of culture in the workplace, consider your own experiences. During the course of your career, have you experienced times when you were eager to get to work in the morning, you were so immersed in your work that the hours flew by, and by the end of the day you didn’t want to stop working? What was it about the job that made you feel that way?

How about the opposite? Have you experienced times when you struggled to get to work in the morning, the hours passed ever so slowly, and by the end of the day you were exhausted? Again, what was it about the job that made you feel that way?

If you are like most people, you’ve experienced those extremes during your career. I have too. As I reflected on my experiences, I realized I hadn’t changed — the culture I was in was either energizing or draining the life out of me. Thus I began a quest to identify the elements of workplace cultures that help people and organizations thrive for sustained periods of time. When the practices my team and I developed to boost employee engagement contributed to doubling our business’s revenues during the course of two and a half years, I knew I was on to something. A few years later I left Wall Street to devote my full attention to understanding employee engagement and culture so I could help others improve the cultures they were in.

Three psychosocial cultures: Connection, control, indifference

What type of culture are you in right now? As we explore what it takes to establish and strengthen connection cultures, it is instructive to understand how they differ from cultures of control and cultures of indifference.

In cultures of control, people with power, influence, and status rule over others. This culture creates an environment where people fear to make mistakes and take risks. It is stifling — killing innovation because people are afraid to speak up. Employees may feel left out, micromanaged, unsafe, hyper-criticized, or helpless.

Cultures of indifference are predominant today. In this type of culture, people are so busy chasing money, power, and status that they fail to invest the time necessary to develop healthy, supportive relationships. As a result, leaders don’t see value in the relational nature of work, and many people struggle with loneliness. Employees may feel like a cog in a machine, unimportant, uncertain, or invisible.

Both of these cultures sabotage individual and organizational performance. Feeling consistently unsupported, left out, or lonely takes a toll. Without the psychological resources to cope with the normal stress of modern organizational life, employees may turn to unhealthy attitudes and behaviors, many of which are addictive and destructive.

A distinguishing feature of these cultures is a sole focus on task excellence. Leaders may openly dismiss the need for relationship excellence. Others may give it lip service and occasional attention, or see its value without knowing how to bring it about. In order to achieve sustainable, superior performance, every member of an organization needs to intentionally develop both task excellence and relationship excellence. A connection culture produces relationship excellence.

In a connection culture people care about others and care about their work because it benefits other human beings. They invest the time to develop healthy relationships and reach out to help others in need, rather than being indifferent to them. This bond helps overcome the differences that historically divided people, creating a sense of connection, community, and unity that is inclusive and energized, and spurs productivity and innovation.