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Great Teams: The Extraordinary Unity of U2®


Last updated 7/13/2010

The rock band U2® has had a phenomenal run since it came together in 1976, winning 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 their songs and concert appearances. This is every indication that U2® is at the top of their game and will be going strong for the foreseeable future.

How has U2® stayed together for more than 30 years when most other bands eventually fall apart? Understanding why U2® has managed to thrive for so long provides insight into the factors that brings success to all types of groups, from business teams and committees to multi-national corporations.

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. While you might expect a band’s mission to be 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 this “the spark.” He feels it sets U2®apart from many other bands. U2®’s songs address themes the band members believe in: human rights and social justice. Bono has described himself as a traveling salesman of ideas within songs.

    The band values excellence in its music and its live performances. U2®’s members value continuous improvement to achieve their own potential, never feeling so satisfied that they can’t improve. Bono distinguishes this striving from envy, which is an unhealthy state of mind that exists when people compete to have what others have.

  2. A participatory, consensus-oriented decision-making style. To Bono, U2® is “the best example of how to rely on others.” Although the band members say they argue relentlessly over their music, which reflects their passion for excellence, they emphasize that they 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 to fully realize his creations and recognizes that they are integral to his success.

  3. 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 titled, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own.”

    The most dramatic example of this mutual support occurred 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.

    Additionally, U2®’s economic profits are split equally between the four band members and their long-time manager Paul McGuiness. Given Bono’s status as a megastar, we might expect him to claim more than an equal share of the band’s profits. What better way to show your team members that you value them and recognize their unique contributions than by treating them as economic equals?

Applying U2®’s Strategies in the Workplace
Notice that each of the above strategies involves how people feel about their work. Research from the Corporate Executive Board has shown that emotional factors are four times as significant as rational factors when it comes to the amount of effort employees put into their work. Feeling “fired up” or “burned out” are emotional states.

U2®’s shared mission and values, participative, consensus-oriented decision-making style, and caring community create a powerful combination that has held the band together for more than three decades. The resulting longevity has given them time to let their music and performances evolve in refreshing and innovative directions.

What could this kind of unity and commitment do for your organization? If you “Still Haven’t Found What You’re Looking For,” take a page from U2®’s songbook. You’ll find that their strategies will unite, engage, and motivate your people to soar to the top of the charts.

(All quotes are from Bono [Riverhead Books, 2005], by Michka Assayas).

U2® is a trademark of Not Us Limited Corporation of Ireland. Its use herein is for identification purposes only and does not represent any approval or recommendation by the trademark owner.