Bob Geldof, who has raised almost $1 billion to help tackle global poverty and successfully lobbied some of the world’s greatest musicians to donate their time to charity, obviously knows a thing or two about leadership.
The Irish musician with a reputation for telling it like it is has been knighted, co-released one of the fastestselling singles of all time (Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’) and co-organised Live Aid, one of the most ambitious concert broadcast of all time.
Band Aid and Live Aid forced the problems afflicting Africa, including HIV, poverty and starvation, into the public eye and culminated in a huge relief effort. Tens of thousands of those who were facing starvation received food and medical care and many thousands of lives were saved.
Sir Bob Geldof, however, does not see himself as a success story.
“I have never thought of myself as successful,” he says.
“Instead, I have always seen myself as committed. And I think if you are committed you will succeed in whatever you do.”
Finding his passion
Geldof characterises himself as a “tearaway” and a “rebel without a cause” while growing up, and it would take him some time to find a cause to which he would commit.
“My dad was a towel salesman,” he says. “He was never at home, so we had to learn to look after ourselves. I never had an authoritative figure in my life, which is part of the reason why I have always had such a problem with authority.”
As soon as he was “old enough”, Geldof left the family home and found work as a slaughter man before landing a job as a music journalist in Canada.
“I knew the music paper was great. People were interested in reading about music and the music scene. But at the end of the day, I didn’t really give a toss about it. I wasn’t committed to it. That’s when I knew I had to move on and find something I was passionate about and committed to.”
Geldof soon found it and returned to Ireland to form a band closely aligned with the punk movement, the Boomtown Rats.
The band received international acclaim, particularly for its second UK No. 1, ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’, penned by Geldof following 16 year-old Brenda Ann Spencer’s attempted massacre at an elementary school opposite her house in California.
After the single’s release, the band – and Geldof – found itself in high demand, and Geldof quickly became known as a colourful interviewee.
During the Boomtown Rats’ first appearance on Ireland’s The Late, Late Show, Geldof managed to be intentionally brusque towards host Gay Byrne, attack Irish politicians and slam the Catholic Church.
The interview caused uproar across the country and the band was subsequently banned from ever performing in Ireland.
Determined to make a difference
Geldof’s feistiness and passion is, arguably, why he has been so successful in bringing public attention to global issues such as African poverty then galvanising people to do something about it. Geldof was moved to improve the world and change it for the better in late 1984 after watching the BBC’s Michael Buerk’s on-the-spot coverage of a famine “of biblical proportions” in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.
Using his connections as a musician, Geldof immediately formed Band Aid, a stellar line-up of some of the world’s best-known singers. The group collaborated to release ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’, written by Geldof and fellow British musician Midge Ure, and to raise funds for Africans living in poverty.
The single went straight to No. 1.
“I was determined to make a difference, and the best way I could do that was to write a song and get my other musician friends to join me on the track,” he says.
Among the artists he convinced to take part were Phil Collins, George Michael, Sting, David Bowie, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Boy George, Paul McCartney and Status Quo. And one other notable inclusion.
“I was adamant I wanted the best musicians the world had to offer,” he says, “so, I asked the lead singer from a band I had performed with previously to also sing on the track. He was relatively unknown at the time, but I knew he was going to be big”.
“I said to the little fat f--k: ‘Bono, I need you to sing on this record’, and he agreed.”
Despite the overwhelming success of the single – sales of which raised over £8 million ($14.2 million) – Geldof wanted to do more and so preparations began for what would be the biggest rock concert the world had ever seen.
“So many people told me it couldn’t be done,” he says. “Two free rock concerts taking place in two countries while being broadcast live to millions of people. Everyone thought I was f--king crazy. But you can’t listen to the naysayers”.
“As with anything in life, you will never succeed if you listen to all the bulls--t. You just have to ignore it and chase your dreams.”
Not taking no for an answer
In fact, Geldof says the best business advice he has ever been given is “f--k off!”
“The more I was told to ‘f--k off’, the more it pushed me to succeed,” he says.
Geldof says the key to success in life and work is, first and foremost, belief, as well as commitment.
“You should see obstacles just as they are – obstacles,” he says. “Everyone faces hurdles in life. We all encounter brick walls, but my advice is to look at the brick wall as a finite object. It will only reach a certain height and extend for a certain length. So, at the end of the day, it can be navigated. There are always ways to get around a brick wall. It might slow you down, but it should never stop you.”
While Geldof has faced his fair share of obstacles, he has never lost sight of the bigger picture.
“Every time someone told me no, I came back at them with one thousand reasons why it could be done and another thousand reasons why I would do it. The trick is to believe in yourself. A true leader has self-belief and doesn’t take crap from anyone.”