Bono: At 50, The Rock Star is a Leader to Emulate

Last Updated May 12, 2010 12:12 PM EDT

U2's front man Bono turns 50 today, and Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn uses the occasion to take some lessons from his leadership skills.

Bono, as you likely know, is a tireless advocate for improving the lives of the poor. He is taken seriously on the world stage by politicians and advocacy groups for his skill in uniting disparate organizations and people, for his grasp of the issues, and his enthusiasm for integrating his work (U2) and his passion (justice for the underdog).

Koehn is intrigued by Bono for a number of reasons, but one is his ability to wield power in excess of that granted him by his office. All leaders have powers that come with their jobs, but the truly great ones are able to leverage the resources they do command to acquire powers and influence that they lack. Bono capitalizes on his fame to access power, sway public opinion and shine a powerful light on issues that might otherwise be neglected.

Another lesson: Bono uses his brain as well as his fame. "One of the most important things he does every day," Koehn writes, "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 third lesson is that Bono does not allow himself to get trapped by the surroundings of success.

"Bono, like Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago, has not let himself become isolated in an elite atmosphere," Koehn writes in this piece for the Washington Post. "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."
There are countless "celebrities" who champion causes, but now I understand a bit more about why Bono seems to have achieved so much more in comparison. He leads to get results, not publicity.

(Bono image by the World Economic Forum, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.