Leadership and Change


Wednesday 22 October 2008

Sir Bob Geldof

Leadership and Change: Lessons in how to lead and inspire

Indig02, London

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Sir Bob Geldof is, in his own words, an unreasonable pain in the arse. This is a good thing, he told the London Business Forum (LBF), because it’s a prerequisite for any true entrepreneur. As the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, while the unreasonable man persists in adapting the world to him.” This, in essence, is the entrepreneurial method: solve a problem you find intolerable, and you will probably end up with a product or service that others are willing to pay for. Apply the same principle to social problems and, potentially, you can save the world.

As a child, Geldof had to save himself. Ireland in the 1950s was very poor, he explained to the LBF, especially if your dad was a travelling salesman and your mum died when you were seven years old. Even Geldof’s siblings were largely absent from the family home in Dublin: one sister got married at 17 while the other became “the family swot” and spent all her evenings at school. In such circumstances, “it becomes incumbent upon you to take care of yourself. So you do the shopping, and you cook your food, and you order the coal, and you bring it up and light the fire and stuff like that. Very rapidly, you learn organization. You learn to be independent.”

One of the positive things about spending a lot of time alone is that you develop a strong imagination – Geldof says he developed a love of the radio because the airwaves brought “seductive whispers” of other places and because rock ‘n’ roll seemed to signify the promise of change. However, it also tends to make you more dogmatic. “I was hopeless at school,” he said. “I couldn’t stand authority.” In a candid piece of self-analysis, Geldof said he probably had abandonment issues. His father had to travel in order to make money, and his mum clearly didn’t choose to die, but “when you’re seven or eight, that isn’t something you countenance… And when the ultimate figures of trust and authority, your parents, bail out on you then you can’t trust any authority figure.”

Geldof underperformed consistently at school. But at 13 he did develop one passionate interest: South Africa. The priests who taught him and his friends at Blackrock College had travelled there as missionaries, and brought back “psychedelic” descriptions of the region’s exotic customs. Equally, they recounted terrible stories of black mistreatment under apartheid, and when Geldof began to witness bullying and racism in the playground he decided, with a friend, to start an anti-Apartheid movement in South Dublin. (The sense of injustice was real, but there was another motive: “To get shagged.” Unfortunately, he said, this turned out to be “a fucking hopeless ruse.”)

After working for charities in Dublin, Geldof went travelling and did “the usual Irish stuff”, such as working as a builder in the UK. He decided quickly that his only chance of making real money was by starting a business but, seduced by a job vacancy in Alaska, he travelled to North America and ended up working in Vancouver for a music magazine called Georgia Strait. Within three months, he was music editor, with control over 50% of the magazine, but a few months after that he was kicked out of the country for outstaying his visa. He returned soon after to apply for full Canadian citizenship, start up his own music newspaper and then a classified advertisement magazine called Buy & Sell.

Returning to Dublin in 1975, Geldof became the lead singer of punk band the Boomtown Rats. It was meant to be a bit of fun, but soon turned into a significant touring career. “Rock ‘n’ roll was my saviour”, Geldof told the LBF, and one that gave him an exciting lifestyle for the next 10 years, rubbing shoulders with other incipient stars such as Bono, whom he said was previously regarded by his circle in Dublin as “that fat kid from down the pub”.

Eventually Geldof found himself back in London, living in Chelsea with Paula Yates and their young daughter, Fifi Trixibelle. His music career was, by this stage, coming off the boil, but he was about to be gripped by a new fervour. This was 1984, and BBC TV correspondent Michael Burke was reporting from Ethiopia on a devastating famine. Yates’s reaction was to demand that every visitor to the house donate £5 towards a relief fund. Geldof’s reaction was to ring his popstar mates and organise a charity record. “Band Aid” would eventually lead to “Live Aid,” the biggest pop concert ever staged, and 20 years later to “Live 8” a public appeal to the world’s richest nations for debt cancellation and other major financial commitments in Africa.

Since then, Geldof said, “I’ve seen many things that people shouldn’t see,” but “when people ask me, ‘What is it you remember of these events?’, still in my mind is Michael Burke’s news report; I’m a creature of the 20th Century. And what we were looking at, of course, was 30 million elegant, creative, dynamic, intellectual people – driven by want to cross vast deserts. Burke chose his words carefully, I think for fear of being over-enraged. But without question, all journalistic objectivity was gone. And he spat the words. And they exactly matched the shame and anger that I felt. And the camera was at its most pitiless, merciless best. It was a cyclopean eye of misery, and it focused in on the endless image of the emaciated human, and then back to show you the enormity, the Biblical scale of this thing – people in their final dignities and their tattered togas, wandering in out of the wastelands to just sit and wait for someone.”

Band Aid struck a chord with the British public and raised £8m, though this soon “evaporated into need”. Live Aid resonated globally, raised £200m and is still building schools in Africa. Live 8, Geldof hopes, will make it possible to overhaul the entire African education system and create sustainable growth in the region. In each case, it was necessary to create a vision of the future that would galvanise public opinion. This was the job of Geldof the entrepreneur. Managers would be needed to handle the details, but it was he who provided the initial impetus for change.

The same kind of leadership will be necessary to lift us from the present economic gloom, he suggested. Indeed, it’s at times of crisis that entrepreneurs get their best chance to shine. “The unexpected always forces positive change,” he said. “We’re going to need another Bretton Woods [the Allied conference that established the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 1944], but out of it will come immense things.” This is an opportunity to “reconstruct old orders,” he suggested, with Africa ripe for investment precisely because it is decoupled, for now, from international markets.

“China and India have outpriced themselves. Shanghai is down 68%. Mumbai is down 40%. Where else does capital go? It goes to the decoupled continent. It goes to Africa…. If I were in private equity, that’s where I’d be going.” This inward investment needs to happen fast, he stressed, since the continent is experiencing a “perfect storm” of poverty right now. “Shipping has been halved because no one can get get 30 days’ credit. The Chinese closed 3,000 toy factories in one area last week, and they don’t require the copper and the steel and the iron and all the other stuff out of Africa. So production has ceased. That means more dying, guys.”

What the recent crisis has demonstrated above all, Geldof argued, is the failure of hierarchical systems of governance – both corporate and political. Everyone in the EU was pulling in different directions before a major bail-out became essential, and now they all think they’re the saviours of capitalism. Meanwhile, in China, there are tens of thousands of riots taking place every year because “there are no labour laws, the workers are rising, the police are called in, the Party can’t deal with it – hierarchal fixed structures don’t work.”

The new paradigm for the 21st Century is going to be one of cooperation and compromise, he suggested. Those players who traditionally profited from the hierarchy already require “other actors” in order to do anything – “the unions, the press, the NGOs, civic society”. Corporations will be have to be more mindful of public opinion in the same way that countries will have to be more mindful of international opinion. “Power is no longer in the hands of the nation state,” Geldof argued. “Even the US can no longer act unilaterally” (although, he added, “this isn’t the end of America” as the world’s most important country).

It is the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that will lead the next surge of global economic growth, because they’re more adaptable than failed giants such as Lehman Brothers. And it is entrepreneurial leaders, therefore, who will write the new rules.

So, how do you succeed as an entrepreneur? The first thing to understand, Geldof argued, is that entrepreneurialism, leadership and change are all one thing. To be an entrepreneur is to be a master of handling change and leading people through it.

Beyond that, all you need is commitment. As Gandhi said: “You have an idea. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.” You must commit, Geldof said, “or else you’re not gonna get through those four tests. You know yourselves, in your own lives… it’s fucking hard. You know when you start a business: commit or it’s not gonna work. And in the middle of Live Aid, I was scared stiff.”

Geldof took most heart, he concluded, from a quote by a Scottish mountaineer called WH Murray who, in the 1950s, wrote the following: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless plans, that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings, and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”