Bono: I Will Follow

Why U2's Bono is one of the World's Greatest Leaders.
Photograph by Sam Jones
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Bono: I Will Follow

Irish rock icon Bono leads a widely acclaimed, data-driven, global organization that influences governments, rallies C-suites, and raises hundreds of millions of dollars for people living in poverty. What’s his secret? An ability to convince others that they are the true leaders of change, not him. Here’s what business can learn from a music legend.

“Why isn’t everyone proclaiming this to the hills? Isn’t this big news?” Bono, lead singer of the Irish band U2, is working the crowd. It is the fourth night of the Innocence and Experience Tour in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, a multimedia spectacle with two stages, a catwalk, and an untold number of cathedral-high digital screens—a pageant of rock-and-roll theatricality that feels justifiably epic for a band that has sold 175 million records, won 22 Grammys, and notched the highest-grossing world tour in history. But that’s not the crowd Bono is working. As throngs of U2 faithful rush the arena for the July 2015 concert, the band’s 55-year-old front man is at a makeshift meet-and-greet three floors above and a world away. There, in a curtained, pop-up sanctuary, behind rows of chairs and rigging equipment, Bono embraces House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. He claps a fund manager on the shoulder and says warmly, “We are winning the fight against AIDS.” Statistics pour out of his mouth like so much small talk as he welcomes the 30 or so gathered VIPs: The United Nations had just issued a report showing that new HIV infections have fallen by 35%, AIDS-related deaths by 41%, and millions more people than expected are getting life-saving medication. Bono relates the news as if he is an infectious-disease expert, not a rock star. As it happens, he’s both.

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Bono (No. 14, World’s Greatest Leaders) finds a potential ally in the crowd. It’s young Barbara Bush, the daughter of former President George W. Bush and granddaughter of the first President Bush, whom Bono wickedly prank-called from U2’s Zoo Tour concert stage in the early 1990s. All is forgiven. “I saw your sister last week, swollen with child,” he says to Barbara Bush, talking about her twin, Jenna Bush Hager. “Absolutely beautiful she was!” Then he leans in for the drop. “You know, I do want to call your dad,” he says. “I have for about a week.” The world is now on track to eliminate the AIDS epidemic by 2030. Had she heard? “Your father, he was part of this,” Bono says, referring to the creation of Pepfar (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) in 2003, the legislation that has earmarked some $60 billion in the fight against AIDS to date. It remains the largest financial commitment of any country to combat a single infectious disease. It had bipartisan support. Its passage brought global attention to an illness that was on its way to becoming a deadly, uncontrollable pandemic. Says Bono: “I don’t think the American people understand how many lives they’ve saved.” Later he reformulates the message, spinning it into a clever political tagline: “If you’re a taxpayer, you’re an AIDS activist.”

The line reflects a classic scrimmage call from Bono’s leadership playbook: One, spread the credit liberally for every success. Two, remind people that they are essential to the mission. Three, ask for more. Repeat steps one through three.

Lest you think Bono is some dilettante celebrity hobnobbing with the Davos crowd, consider the man’s record. Fewer people have been more effective at shining a stage light on poverty, particularly in Africa, and in influencing governments and large corporations to work together to alleviate it. For Bono, the “lobbying” effort began with the global Jubilee 2000 initiative, a campaign founded by British economist Ann Pettifor to ask world leaders to forgive the debts of the poorest countries by the turn of the millennium. The campaign was inspired by the biblical decree that every 49 years, debts should be forgiven and slaves freed; Bono was moved by the notion—it spoke to his deeply held Christian ethos. And so in the late 1990s, the rock star found himself in the office of then–U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, stumbling through his prepared pitch. His career as a lobbyist might have ended there, Bono says, were it not for the kindness of Summers’ chief of staff, Sheryl Sandberg, who stepped in to help.

SWITZERLAND-DAVOS-ECONOMY-AIDS Bono poses with Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in January 2015 to mark the 10-year anniversary of Red.Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini—AFP/Getty Images

What appealed to Bono, perhaps even more than the mission, was the strategy behind the effort. Musician Bob Geldof, the creator of the Live Aid concert, walked him through the math. “The $125 million we raised with that show was less than what African countries were paying in interest on the debt every day,” says Bono. Even a slate of showy benefit concerts would ­never solve the problem. Forgiving the debt would—by freeing up resources that could, in turn, be used for education, infrastructure, health care, and more.

The campaign led to the cancellation of more than $100 billion of debt owed by 35 of the globe’s poorest countries, according to the World Bank. To Bono, though, what mattered wasn’t just the outcome; it was also the strategy behind it. Debt forgiveness was a clever use of leverage, and the idea stuck.

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In 2005 he started the One campaign, a volunteer-led movement to influence lawmakers to commit resources to funding programs that truly change the lives of the poor—from Pepfar (which continues to provide lifesaving antiretroviral drugs); to the Global Fund, the Geneva-based not-for-profit that finances select local programs fighting AIDS, TB, and malaria; to Gavi, a public-private partnership that provides needed vaccines to kids; to an effort that Bono is particularly excited about now: the Electrify Africa Act, which was passed by Congress in December 2015 and signed into law in February. Its aim is to help some 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa get electricity for the first time through the support of private investment in the region. It made it through a gridlocked Congress with almost no fanfare. But for One members, who had been engaged in a yearlong campaign of targeted support, it was a wonky dream come true.

The driving notion of the One campaign, again, is leverage—think of it as a scaling mechanism for Bono’s own commitment, a Willy Wonka–like device that amplifies the voices of 7 million like-minded activists. For the past 10 years these volunteers have faxed, called, written, tweeted, and visited lawmakers to deliver on their funding commitments. But candy stripers they’re not. The training is in-depth and sophisticated, teaching volunteers everything from the minutiae of the appropriations process to Capitol Hill etiquette, and giving them congressional-level briefings on health, education, and energy-security issues in Africa.

As nonprofits go, its constituency of volunteers is surprisingly purple—neither liberal blue nor conservative red, at least in rhetoric. The organization, like Bono, is thoroughly cloaked in bipartisan cloth—a staunchly inclusive, make-no-villains enterprise. “There is nothing quite like them on the Hill,” says Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. “They come every year. They’re polite, prepared, and persistent.”

When he finally got to sit down with Helms, he quoted Matthew 25, which talks about suffering. “There was nothing about judgment there,” says Bono. “How could addressing this disease not be at the center of Christ’s mission? That’s where we ended up.” Helms welled up, offered a blessing, and got to work. Not only did he change his mind on AIDS funding, but he lobbied the White House himself. “Dick Cheney came into the Oval Office and said, ‘Jesse Helms wants you to listen to Bono’s ideas,’ ” an amused President Bush said in his speech announcing the aid package. Then the 80-year-old senator became a fan of the band, attending concerts like they were revival meetings. Beltway insiders were genuinely surprised. Bono’s liberal friends, including bandmate the Edge, were appalled. “It was a real miracle,” laughs Pelosi. But Bono has a simpler take: “When you have a person who may appear rigidly opposed to something, look for ways to widen the aperture of their narrow idealistic view,” he says. “We like to think of ourselves as an ­unlikely group having unlikely conversations that get stuff done,” he says.The cross-the-aisle approach found its apex with Pepfar. The tale, indeed, is now the stuff of legend on the Hill—an Atticus Finch tale of how Bono got North ­Carolina’s Sen. Jesse Helms to change his mind. Bono, for his part, waves off the credit. “I don’t accept that it was me,” he says. “But I will say that we found a way to deal with the supposed ‘opposition’ by taking them out of caricature.” On the religious right in the 1980s, there was no greater opponent of AIDS funding than Helms, who railed against the LGBT community as “perverts” and as “weak, morally sick wretches” falling prey to “a gay disease.” Bono was unfazed. Tapping the network of evangelical faith leaders whom he had worked with during the debt-forgiveness campaign, Bono began to meet with conservative lawmakers about Pepfar. It was a conversation of data and faith, two languages with which he is deeply familiar. “We showed them the obvious similarity between HIV and the leprosy of the early New Testament,” he says. “This fight is not just foreign aid.”

It’s a message that cuts across the generations, which has become one of One’s enduring strengths. When U2 finally takes the stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden last July, Bono fulfills a promise he made to the young Barbara Bush at the meet-and-greet just moments earlier. He tells his rock-and-roll flock about the UN report announcing huge gains in the fight against AIDS, and then mentions a name that some in the raucous arena have probably forgotten. “We need to thank President Bush,” shouts the singer. The crowd goes wild.

Repeat steps one through three.

“I don’t want to be in Heaven unless you’re all here.” Again, Bono is working the crowd. Always working the crowd. This time the stage is in Heaven. That’s the name of the restaurant in Kigali, Rwanda, where yet another unlikely group of allies has gathered. We are on the second day of a three-day due diligence trip that has brought One staff together with execs at the Global Fund, health experts, security advisers, and a handful of corporate bigwigs who have partnered with One’s now-famous branding operation, called Red.

Red was launched at Davos in 2006 to find creative ways for companies to contribute money to the Global Fund while raising awareness. “We operate like a start-up,” says Red CEO Deb Dugan. “We work hand in hand with companies’ marketing departments to accomplish their business goals.” In the past 10 years more than $350 million has gone to the Global Fund through the sale of Red-branded products from partners like Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Nike. Apple (AAPL) has contributed more than $106 million of that amount in the past 10 years. “It’s been a unique way for us to use our skills to raise awareness and participate in changing things for the better,” Apple CEO Tim Cook—who, like most of Red’s corporate partners, was personally courted by Bono—tells Fortune. “Bono has this unusual mix of traits that combines idealism and action,” Cook says. “Most people only have one, but he has both. We bet on him.”

Apple Computer And U2 Celebrate New iPod Release In 2004, Apple sold thousands of special-edition U2 iPods and box sets; in 2014, Apple released its “Songs of Innocence” for free via iTunes—which in turn boosted sales of U2’s back catalogue.Photograph by Tim Mosenfelder—Getty Images

Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca Cola (KO), is equally effusive about Bono. “There is no one better who can harness the emotion and soul and value of people,” says Kent. The two officially joined forces on World AIDS Day in 2011, where Kent stood onstage with Bono—and Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Obama—and pledged to partner with Red. Coca-Cola has raised $8 million since 2011 and has pledged $6 million more through 2018. All of it goes to the Global Fund.

“He dreams big and then works so hard to get things done,” says the Coke CEO of Bono. The two have become close since 2011 and traveled together across Africa. Each of them has a child who graduated from Columbia University the same year—another chance for bonding.

Add to that list of Bono admirers Howard Schultz. Last summer when the Starbucks (SBUX) CEO tore his Achilles tendon, he says, Bono came to check on him. “Just him alone,” says Schultz, “walking through my door and spent an entire day.” But while Schultz clearly cherishes the friendship, he seems genuinely inspired by the rock star’s humanitarian bent and leadership ability. “I can tell you that he is a true authentic servant leader,” says Schultz. “He might be onstage and the lights are very bright. But when the cameras are off and no one is watching, I think that’s when you really know who someone is. He’s the real deal.”

“There is no one better who can harness the emotion and soul and value of people than Bono. He dreams big and then works so hard to get things done.”
Muhtar Kent, CEO, Coca-Cola

Other friends who have become allies in Bono’s war on poverty—including celebrity chef Mario Batali and Bank of America (BAC) vice chair Anne Finucane—have made the effort to join him in Kigali. The trip, says Finucane, whose company has given $10 million to Red since 2014 and just committed an additional $10 million over the next five years, has reinforced her resolve to help: “It was life changing,” she says, to put actual faces and names to the lives saved by two pills a day.

A congressional delegation—Sen. Coons, a Democrat, and Rep. Kay Granger, a Republican from Texas­—is also on hand. Granger leads an appropriation subcommittee that funds all the work that One lobbies for. Earlier in the day the traveling entourage descended upon a 50-acre plot of land filled with solar panels, an array developed by Gigawatt Global, which is providing electricity to the area. Microphone in hand, Bono—clad, as always, in the mildest of rock uniforms: something black, something leather, serious boots, earrings—­delivers the Bono Experience: some data, some stories, some good news, and loads of gratitude for the contributions of those in the room.

He is at once expected and surprising. I have to remind myself every so often that the man in the cool shades (which he wears, by the way, to protect eyes that have been troubled by glaucoma for two decades) is a rock star. With 13 studio albums—seven of which hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts—U2 is among the most successful bands in rock history. Part of the secret to its success has been its independence. “We own our masters, we own ourselves,” Bono says, and the band members operate as equal, collaborative artists, without the pressure of corporate overlords.

“Actions, actions, actions,” says Bono. “It’s about being useful, and that’s what I want to be.”Photograph by Sam Jones

“They don’t sound like anyone else,” says Tom Freston, the founder of MTV and One’s board chair. “And they’ve been making music that resonates with people for decades.” But as Bono has grown in music stature, he has also matured as a businessman. He co-founded Elevation, a private equity firm created in 2004, a high performer thanks to investments in Facebook (FB), Yelp (YELP), BioWare, and Pandemic Studios. And in 2014 he became a special partner in TPG Growth, a global investment group with $7 billion under management. The founder, Bill McGlashan, had purchased Fender the year before and asked Bono to join the guitar company’s board. Bono’s ability to think strategically about Fender’s future earned him a fan in McGlashan.

For Bono there is a wondrous simpatico between music, development work, and investing. And in each area his relentless drive is unmistakable. When asked point-blank about where this drive comes from, Bono seems unsure. “You know,” he says, “we have a family prayer. And that is to be useful.” He falls silent. “I think that’s as close to it as I can get” to an answer.

Being Irish also plays an important part in Bono’s identity, and one that helps him explain, at least to himself, why he’s been so drawn to development work. He posits that “Ireland has a real living memory of famine and shaking off colonialism,” and is still healing the scars of violence, poverty, and despair. “I believe development can work in Africa because it worked in Ireland.”

Bono, born Paul Hewson, lost his mother at 14, a heartbreaking event that turned him toward art. “It was to heal the wound,” he says. U2 has been together since they were teenagers at the progressive Mount Temple high school in Dublin. “We couldn’t play our instruments, so we had to be punk rockers.” It was also where he fell in love with Alison Stewart, whom he would eventually marry. “I met my wife and my band in the same week,” he likes to say. Bono and Alison Hewson have four children: daughters Jordan, 26, and Eve, 24, who both live in New York City, and sons Elijah, 16, and John, 14. Living mostly in Dublin has let Bono have a fairly normal life, close to friends and family, including people who aren’t all that impressed with the rock star thing. One sore point is that U2 has chosen to domicile one of their companies in the Netherlands for tax purposes. He’s defended the move publicly as smart business but doesn’t wave off the critique. “I hear about things down at the pub, all right,” he says.

But make no bones, Bono’s Irish sensibility and sense of history seem to give him a courage to act where others might look away. Ten years ago, when Bono first visited University Teaching Hospital in Kigali, there were three people to a cot, another three underneath on the floor, and long lines of desperate people waiting for a test to confirm that they were going to die of a disease that was being managed effectively in wealthier countries. No medicine was coming. It resurrected deep moral questions for Bono about who gets access to life-saving medication and why—and how political indifference and systemic poverty are often the only things condemning people to terrible deaths. “Why should where you live determine whether you live?”

The Bono Balance Sheet

Bono and U2, idealistic capitalists, have shown a knack for creating and deploying wealth over the past four decades.

  • Album sales
    U2 has released 13 albums since 1980 and has sold about 175 million records for (very roughly estimated) revenue of about $1.8 billion.
  • Touring, earning
    U2’s 360° Tour, from 2009 to 2011, was the highest-grossing tour of all time, with a final gross of $736.4 million, according to Live Nation.
  • Boardroom Bono
    Bono co-founded Elevation Partners, a private equity group and early Facebook investor. He sits (with bandmate the Edge) on the board of Fender Guitars and advises Fender’s owner, equity fund TPG Growth.
  • Go, Go, NGO
    The advocacy group Red has raised $350 million since 2006 to combat AIDS, connecting Bono with leaders at Nike, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and other top corporations.
  • Apple, Core
    In 2004, Apple sold thousands of special-edition U2 iPods and box sets; in 2014, Apple released its “Songs of Innocence” for free via iTunes—which in turn boosted sales of U2’s back catalogue.

Ten years later there is real cause to be optimistic. The same facility now has 560 beds in an orderly collection of low, mostly single story buildings arranged by specialty: surgery, oncology, maternity, and pediatrics. Some $70 million has come to Rwanda through carefully monitored programs funded by the Global Fund. A countrywide health care system that helps screen and support HIV-affected Rwandans, particularly in rural areas, seems to be working. AIDS deaths have been reduced from 13,000 in 2000 to 3,000 in 2014. Best of all, there were only 36 known examples of mother to child transmission of HIV in 2014.

Bono and his One co-founders—British activists Jamie Drummond and Lucy Matthew—take a rare moment to enjoy the progress when the delegation visits last August. (Bobby Shriver is the group’s fourth co-founder.) Drummond, Matthew, and Bono met during the Jubilee effort. Bandmates of a different sort, they’ve collaborated for so long, they speak to each other in shorthand, finishing each other’s sentences while they huddle over laptops and plan strategy.

Drummond shares a story that describes the way they have learned to think about development work. “In the 1990s I worked on things called complex emergencies,” he says, massive humanitarian catastrophes when the world seems at its worst: Ethiopia after the civil war, Afghanistan as the Taliban was taking over, Rwanda after the genocide. “It feels important; it’s grim and highly addicting work.” The media shows up; rock stars throw concerts. But what if you could stop the emergency from happening? What if you could get ahead of it?

If Bono has a motto, he’s adapted it from St. Francis: Go into all the world to preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words. “I love that one,” he says. “Actions, actions, actions. It’s about being useful, and that’s what I want to be.”

This year One arranged for 200 of its volunteers to meet with 30 U.S. senators (or high-level staffers), an extraordinarily high number, to advocate for “replenishing” the Global Fund, among other tasks. The training of next-generation leaders is critical for the long-term prospects of the enterprise. “In order for this to be sustainable, it can’t depend on me,” says Bono.

Interestingly, though, One is becoming ever more dependent on something else: Africa. There are more than 3 million One members on the continent; it is the organization’s fastest-growing cohort. And with this shift in membership has come an evolution of message: pushing the “ask” conversation less toward financial aid and more toward assistance in development. After Rwanda, Bono and his One/Red delegation visited the CoCreation Hub in Lagos, an incubation space for technology entrepreneurs with a focus on social impact. Women’s issues, health, good governance, and anti-corruption ideas are in high demand, and everyone is eager to address the nearly $1 billion in oil revenue that goes missing every month. “What could that money do for the education sector?” asks Owoicho Apochi Nelson, education advocate and entrepreneur.

Jane Anika, right, from Green Energy Africa, a local NGO, shows two Maasai girls how to use a solar lamp, in the village of Koora, Kenya, Tuesday, August 18, 2015. That day, in this small village, a Green Energy Africa came to give them solar power for the first time ever. Up until then there was no light at night for children to study by, or to keep predators away from the herds. Many people in Africa don't have access to power in their homes and will walk many miles to charge their cell phones. In Kenya people almost can't live without their mobiles, they use it to pay for most things and connect with the world -- they use their mobiles instead of physical money, which is a lot safer and more practical. In nearly every location globally, at every demographic level, people possess some form of cell phone in today’s hyper connected world. Be it an iPhone or the simplest Nokia, the anxiety born of a fading battery has emerged as a common human experience. In villages, slums and any poorer area of Africa, charging stations have become the central social circles. The consequences of lost connections are palatable in Kenya, and the opportunities and growth that come with access to reliable power is transformative. (Photo credit/Tara Todras-Whitehill) Jane Anika from Green Energy Africa, a local NGO, shows two Maasai girls how to use a solar lamp in the village of Koora, Kenya.Photograph by Tara Todras-Whitehill

While the One team assembles a roundtable discussion on women’s rights issues in Nigeria—a major campaign of the group is called “Poverty is sexist”—Bono says the main goal of the trip is “trade and entrepreneurship.” That, he says, “is the key to ending extreme poverty on the continent. Especially now, Africa needs jobs, millions of them. But without outside investment, which is typically afraid of the risks, it’s not going to happen.”

To that end, last June Bono began working with TPG-Satya, a new partnership specifically focused on Africa investment. It was born of a meeting at his home in Dublin with McGlashan, his partner in TPG Growth, and One board member, African investor and development expert Dr. Mohamed “Mo” Ibrahim. Its purpose it to find smart investments that can ethically operate at scale, creating jobs along the way. “Business investments can also deliver social value,” says Bono, sounding a refrain he repeats frequently. “And for anything we do in the least developed economies, I won’t be taking a profit.”

On the second Monday in March, Bono and the band are back in the studio—if not quite in profit mode, then in a creative one, hopefully. They are working on some new material for when the I+E Tour picks up again later this year. U2’s celebrated front man is getting all philosophical. “We really were a band of thieves,” he says of the early days of One. It’s an operating principle he brought from being in the band, where everyone is equal. “The best ideas should prevail wherever they come from—even if they’re from outside the band. In fact, everything is possible as long as it’s not your idea,” he laughs. And that’s the faith he’s bringing to the next 10 years. “The ideas are out there.”

When Bono says he is a follower, he does mean Christ, specifically where it relates to caring for the poor. “I’ve just never felt that I could wear the badge,” he says. “I’m a true believer. I just don’t go on about it because I’m suspicious of people who do.” But in an elegant switch, One turns politicians around the world into followers as well—­followers of the will of their citizens. “We hold them accountable,” says Bono.

There have been rough moments in this journey, certainly. “I’ve spent way too much time in the hospital lately,” says Bono. In 2010 he was rushed into surgery after a herniated disc and compressed sciatic nerve nearly paralyzed him. It forced the band to cancel the U.S. leg of their 360° Tour. Then, in November 2014, Bono had a nasty cycling accident in New York’s Central Park, damaging his eye socket and pinky finger, fracturing his left shoulder, and driving his bone through the skin of his left arm in six places. It was a humbling reminder that even the greatest spirit is still the captive of the body.

He shares a piece of advice given to him by his friend Brendan Kennelly, an Irish poet. Bono says he’s using the words as inspiration for his songwriting: “If you really want to get to the place”—the dark heart of the matter— “write as if you’re dead. You won’t be worrying about what anyone is thinking, won’t have any ego.”

Bono says that’s his plan now: He’s going to write songs as if they were the last ones he’ll ever write. He pauses for effect—hell, the man is Irish—and then says: “But I sure hope they’re not.”

A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2016 issue of Fortune.