Bono & Jesse Helms – Leading Change

The article “I Will Follow” in the April 2016 issue of Fortune magazine contains an extraordinary story about leading change.  It illustrates how listening generously can provide the opening for being a masterful agent of change.

In 2005, Bono (the lead singer of the Irish band U2) started a volunteer-led movement called the “One campaign” to influence lawmakers to commit resources to programs that will cause high-impact change for the lives of the poor.

One of these programs is called PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) – a legislation that has earmarked $60 billion dollars in the fight against AIDS, and which remains the largest financial commitment of any country to address a single disease.  The number of lives, families and communities saved by this legislation is unimaginable by most of us.

According to the article there was no greater opponent of AIDS funding at the time than Republican Senator Jesse Helms.  With religious undertones, Helms spoke out against the LGBT community as “perverts” and as “weak, morally sick wretches” falling prey to “a gay disease.” This didn’t stop Bono. Instead it was a call to meet the challenge. Through Bono’s network of evangelical faith leaders he met with conservative lawmakers, and then worked his way to a meeting with Jesse Helms.

Once in front of Helms, Bono was able to influence Helms in a way that was instrumental to the PEPFAR legislation being passed.  How did he do it? By listening generously.

Rather than approaching the conversation by making Helms wrong for his view about the LGBT community, Bono stepped deeper into Helms’s viewpoint. This is what we call “listening to re-create”. By standing inside of Helms’s view and appreciating his perspective, his feelings, and his commitment, Bono was able to have a conversation that opened up an entirely new (and very critical) perspective for Helms.

Bono spoke to Helms’s deep commitment as a Christian and even quoted Matthew 25, which is about suffering. “We showed them the obvious similarity between HIV and the leprosy of the early New Testament,” Bono said. “This fight is not just foreign aid.”

How did their conversation end? With Helms having a dramatic shift in his view: “How could addressing this disease not be a the center of Christ’s mission?”  Not only did Helms change his view, he even lobbied for this legislation himself. President Bush said in his speech announcing the package, “Dick Cheney came into the Oval Office and said ‘Jessie Helms wants you to listen to Bono’s ideas.’”

Speaking about this effort, Bono said: “When you have a person who may appear rigidly opposed to something, look for ways to widen the aperture of their narrow idealistic view.”  Bono did not ask Helms to do something that goes against his worldview. Rather, Bono opened the possibility for Helms to see how he can more fully honor what he deeply cares about and what he is committed to.

It is almost impossible to make the kind of impact that occurred in this scenario when you are trying to convince the other person that their view is wrong or that your view is better. Central to being a masterful agent of change is the ability to step into another person’s view, to listen to re-create their perspective, commitment and feelings, and then together co-create a new possibility.

We strongly recommend reading the entire “I Will Follow” article if you are in any way engaged in being a masterful agent of change. Click here to view the full Fortune magazine article.