No Surrender: U2’s story of Adaptability, Skills, Risk and Belief

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1989. The venue is what is now known as 3Arena in Dublin, Ireland. On stage are the legendary Irish quartet U2, joined by American blues guitarist BB King. It’s the end of a decade where U2 has taken popular music by storm; four lads who formed a band just over a decade earlier had produced five original albums, including the Grammy-winning The Joshua Tree, the live album Rattle and Hum, an accompanying feature film, and were arguably the biggest music act on the planet. As lead singer Bono looked out at the audience, with BB King’s brass section combining to produce a roots-based sound light years from the early punk of U2, he told the crowd “This is just the end of something for U2; we have to go away and dream it all up again”. 

It was an extraordinary admission. A band on top of their game, already demonstrating an ability to adapt to vastly different musical styles and move with the times the fickle entertainment business produces, telling their home crowd at a celebratory time that a new act was necessary. In his recently released book Surrender, Bono writes on reflection “I had the killjoy suspicion that at our most successful we were at our most vulnerable…..it was starting to feel it was time to cut down the Joshua tree, before someone else showed up with their chainsaw”. 

Fast forward to the end of 2022, where I identified four key themes that I believe leaders will need to develop strategies for in order to be effective now and in the future. Firstly, the ability to adapt to and interpret changing circumstances; the ability to develop your own skills in addition to the skills of the people that rely on you; an understanding of your risk appetite and the opportunities that presents; and finally, a belief that you have the necessary tools, whether they be already present or readily available, to succeed. Having recently read Surrender and followed U2’s evolution since the early 1980s, mainly as a fan but more lately as a leadership consultant, I feel the story of Bono as an individual, and U2 as a collective, is a perfect way of bringing these themes to life. 

THE ABILITY TO ADAPT 

The most successful album made by U2, in terms of units sold (25 million), was 1987’s The Joshua Tree, produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. However, in order to achieve those numbers, U2 made a conscious choice to adapt its musical style and explore new ways of working. 

Its first three albums, 1980’s Boy, 1981’s October and 1983’s War had established the group as a solid, passionate guitar/bass/drums band with a growing international following. The same producer, Steve Lillywhite, was used on all three albums. When it came to making 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, Bono took the idea of pursuing former Roxy Music keyboardist and electronic music pioneer Brian Eno as producer to his record company. Their response was short: “Are you out of your minds? Have you heard his latest album? It’s full of bird noises”. Bono did not give in. In Surrender he wrote “We were a rock band, that’s who we were. It’s not who we were going to be. We didn’t quite know what that was yet, but we had a hunch that Brian Eno would help us find out”. 

When Bono finally spoke with Eno, it was clear he hadn’t heard any of U2’s songs. But he had been told there was “something about [U2] that was more than the usual colours in the rock ‘n roll spectrum. Something different, something other”. When speaking with Eno, he mentioned a young Canadian collaborator, Daniel Lanois, doing interesting work outside “normal studio environs”. When asked if U2 could work with him, Bono replied to Eno “If you’re there”. 

“We were a rock band, that’s who we were. It’s not who we were going to be” – Bono, 1984

Bono reflects on this period as “a place of inquiry into music, religion, politics” that would propel them into the musical stratosphere. The journeys Bono subsequently took with Amnesty International, to Ethiopia and the Chicago Peace Museum are charted back to the time adapting their craft under Eno and Lanois. He recalls Eno saying “It’s all you’ve got. Your thoughts, they decide who you are”. 

Reflection question: How can you proactively adapt to get in front of a change in your own work situation? 

LEVERAGE YOUR SKILLS, AND THOSE AROUND YOU 

Let’s be upfront – U2 could not have achieved all it has in an artistic sense without being skilled musicians. Bono could not have duetted with Sinatra and Pavarotti without having a great voice. Edge was described by BB King as “the greatest rhythm guitar player in the world”. Drummer Larry Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton were respected globally as one of the tightest rhythm sections. But in order to take their massive stadium tours on the road, meet world leaders and leave the impact they have, they required a variety of different skill sets – many of which came to the fore on the run. 

Bono recounts meeting Bill Clinton at the Oval Office in March 1999 (wearing black T-shirt and black combat pants) to discuss the coming millennium and the opportunity to use his platform to tackle global poverty. Despite having what he describes as “a sinking feeling”, Bono managed to convince Clinton that the richest countries should abolish the “economic slavery” caused by Cold War debts, continuing to negatively impact the poorer countries, and forgive that debt. Before gaining Clinton’s agreement to meet West Wing advisers, Bono felt “completely out of his depth and the only way to survive was to adapt. It’s a feeling, weirdly, that I crave the most”. Despite his humble writings, it’s fairly clear some highly effective influencing skills, an ability to imagine and communicate a desired future state, and an understanding of his target audience played no small role in winning Clinton over with his vision. In 2000, Clinton won authorisation for nearly USD1bn in debt forgiveness for poor nations and for global efforts to fight HIV/AIDS (another cause Bono continued to drive during the Bush administration). 

U2 were collectively great sales people, too. With every song and interview they were selling ideas, the band, merchandise, and as Bono describes, “on my best day selling, well, hope”. Their reputation as an outstanding live performing act was initially built through musical skill and presence, but eventually stage production skills were added that took the U2 experience to new levels. For the Elevation tour in 2001, a heart-shaped stage was built. Bono described it “like playing two venues at the same time – a club, inside an arena”.  

Reflection question: What untapped skills are available nearby or within your team that you can use to address a current issue?

VIEW RISK AS AN OPPORTUNITY 

On September 9th 2014, U2 achieved what no recording act had done previously. Apple delivered their new album Songs of Innocence to everybody on the planet owning an iPod – at no charge. In fact, Bono and new band manager Guy Oseary had convinced Apple CEO Tim Cook to pay U2 for their work, then distribute it on their behalf. Cook was not convinced, saying “There’s something not right about giving your art away for free”. But Bono, knowing he was guilty of “vaunting ambition” and “overreach”, pushed ahead regardless, believing that with the choice residing with the consumer if they listen to it or not, coupled with the chance to acquire new fans, it was worth the risk. 

There’s those selling and influencing skills, again. 

History shows this was not a popular decision. Whether the music was good or not was irrelevant – U2 had entered the discussion about Big Tech and the way it can intrude into people’s lives. This example underlined that while taking big risks can have big rewards, they can also backfire on you. Bono describes how this event bought Apple many “custard pies”, and for the younger generation not familiar with the U2 back-story, they will forever be the band that forced their music onto the world. To Tim Cook’s credit, he was willing to “experiment because the music business in its present form is not working for everyone”. Despite this hiccup, U2’s relationship with Apple survived, with Cook going on to spend more than USD250m on various AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria charities, all inspired by Bono. 

Reflection question: What measured risks are you prepared to take that could produce new opportunities for you and those in your team? 

RETAIN YOUR BELIEF 

The first album U2 made after its decision to start over at the end of the 1980s was Achtung Baby, recorded in Berlin and ultimately released in 1991. It received strong critical acclaim, producing five singles. Elysa Gardner of Rolling Stone magazine said it was an attempt by the band to “broaden its musical palette, but this time its ambitions are realised”. 

But it wasn’t all easy for the band – in fact, U2 almost disbanded during the process of making Achtung Baby. On a personal level, guitarist Edge’s marriage had broken down, leaving the other band members reflecting on what life in a huge rock band could mean for their own relationships. In addition, the songwriting process was difficult – ideas were not coming together well, with Bono describing them having “lots of bits, but no hard drive. Bits and pieces and beliefs”. He reflects on asking himself the question many times “What are we doing here?”, as the band toyed with drum machines, electronic and dance music. 

Ironically, it was Edge who, despite his personal trauma, viewed the limitations of U2 in that style of music as a positive, almost delighting in getting lost in unfamiliar territory, while the other members were feeling “drudgery and begrudgery”. That underlying belief displayed by Edge ultimately became the circuit-breaker U2 needed; the seminal song One, the product of two of his discarded chord pieces, came to light in the final week of the Berlin sessions. This gave the band the energy and belief to push on and finish the recording back home in Dublin. Bono described it as “a tiny tunefulness that appears among the dissonance, a melody emerging that no one who hears this song will forget”. He told a live audience in Berlin in 2018 how “One was a song that saved us. We wrote it because we really needed to hear it”. 

Reflection question: What has happened recently that affirms your belief you’re on the right path to success?  

There are numerous other anecdotes from across the 40 chapters of Surrender, or from other tales of U2, that I could have selected for this article. But it should be clear that U2’s ability to adapt to changing environments, back in their skills, take calculated risks and ultimately stick to the underlying belief in what they were doing (or going to do) has significantly contributed to their success story. Many of their great moments have touched on a few of these factors simultaneously. 

A question you might ask after reading this is “What if I don’t need my team to be the greatest in the world or to win awards”? Or, you might think “I just need my team to work well together”, or even “I’m not Bono”. To the last question I would definitely answer “You don’t need to be!”. But one over-arching theme I see in the U2 story worth remembering is, ultimately, it was never up to just one person to get them out of difficulty. Sure, it was Edge’s riff that gave life to One, but it was Bono hearing the beauty in it that sparked the band back to life. When they wanted new ideas, they went looking for innovators like Brian Eno to help them. The four members couldn’t deliver huge scale outdoor shows without the best available production teams. Remember that as you lead your own teams – the best answers don’t have to be yours. In fact, life can be easier if one of your team comes up with a great idea – be there to guide them with it, encourage calculated risk taking – and watch their skills and belief grow. 

And remember, U2 were once pale 18-year-olds with modest skills, no money and just dreams, and a tour button badge that said “U2 can happen to anyone”.

ABOUT LEWIS

Cadence Leadership Advisory is a leadership development business specialising in coaching people, team leadership and development, strategy review and organisational culture.

Its Founder, Lewis Williams, has over 25 years of leadership experience gained through senior roles at NAB, HSBC and Bendigo and Adelaide Bank. A Graduate of AGSM@UNSW, a Graduate Member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), and an Approved Advisor with Advisory Board Centre, he instigated and drove development of the 2021 paper “Organisational Culture: Beyond the Intangible” with other alumni of the AICD. He is also an accredited CultureTalk practitioner, a training and development platform that activates the framework of personality archetypes for the growth of leaders, teams, brands and cultures.

FOUNDER: Lewis Williams

EMAIL: lewis@cadenceleadershipadvisory.com.au

MOBILE: 61 (0) 477 371 665

LINKEDIN: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lewis-williams- cadenceleadershipadvisory/

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