Jewish World Review August 10, 2001 / 21 Menachem-Av, 5761
Consider, for instance, the world of baseball and the nearly freakish success of the Seattle Mariners. From the season's start, the largely unheralded M's have racked up the best record in the game - with numbers to qualify as one of the most consistent big-league winners of the past 100 years.
No one predicted this sort of dominance, especially in view of the Mariners' heartbreaking and ultimately doomed struggles to keep their three superstars playing in Seattle. In the course of just 3 years, the team lost one of baseball's most effective and intimidating pitchers (Randy Johnson), the most celebrated outfielder of his generation (Ken Griffey Jr.) and the finest shortstop - and purportedly best all-around player - in the game today (Alex Rodriguez). And what was the result of these wrenching departures? On each occasion, the Mariners got better - with this year's team of capable journeymen earning the best record in the history of the franchise.
According to many seasoned observers, the Mariners achieved this success not in spite of the loss of their superstars, but because of it. First baseman Mike Sweeney of the Kansas City Royals made the point to Larry Stone of The Seattle Times: "I think when they had Griffey, A-Rod and Randy Johnson, they had three superstars, but that doesn't necessarily make them a good team," he said at the All Star break. "Once they left, the Seattle Mariners really jelled as a team. They don't have three head guys; they have 25 equal guys, and I think that's what makes them a great team."
The same principle applies to all other arenas of competition. Superstars consume too much energy and attention, thereby discouraging the emergence of new generations of outstanding performers. Stars also distort every organizational structure, forcing everything to revolve around them instead of fostering balanced lines of responsibility.
In the world of network TV, today's triumphant shows emphasize the importance of the ensemble cast. The most acclaimed and popular programs feature an array of nicely matched but lesser-known players - as in Emmy leaders The West Wing and The Sopranos, or ratings champs such as ER or Survivor. When the networks have attempted to lure viewers by employing Hollywood superstars (The Bette Midler Show, The Geena Davis Show), the results proved quickly and utterly disastrous.
In the world of movies, the stress on stardom also seems obsolete. Director Steven Spielberg, arguably the biggest star in Hollywood, experienced a rare flop with this summer's release of A.I. At the same time, films with eager young casts of little-known actors, ranging from A Knight's Tale to The Fast and the Furious, proved surprisingly profitable. The summer's biggest hit, Shrek, centered on a previously unknown computer-generated ogre; though it used star voices (Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy), it never showed their faces.
Politics has also experienced a de-emphasis on all-powerful, charismatic figures. Bill Clinton, of course, counted as a political superstar. For good or ill, he dominated every aspect of his administration and easily overshadowed all of his colleagues. President George W. Bush, in contrast, feels comfortable working with partners such as Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney, who effortlessly upstage him. Media reports emphasize a new collegial atmosphere in the White House. The result, 6 months into Bush's presidency, was a robust approval rating (according to the Gallup/CNN/USA TODAY Poll) of 57%. At the same point in his administration, Clinton's approval score was only 45%.
Clinton's superstardom also proved notoriously difficult to pass on to his chosen successor, Al Gore, highlighting another chronic problem of overwhelming personalities: They tend to make potential replacements look pallid and drab by comparison.
That's one reason the world of business has also moved away from a fascination with attention-grabbing swashbucklers. Investors understand that any organization that's totally dependent on such a personality is inherently shaky. Even the few undeniable business superstars today (Bill Gates at Microsoft, Jack Welch at GE) are soft-spoken commanders noted for their emphasis on building a reliable team to back them up. Even our most intimate relationships have begun to shift away from their emphasis on one commanding figure. In traditional families of the 1950s, the father often functioned as the superstar, with wife and children serving as the supporting cast. That sort of arrangement has become rare, with power and responsibilities within the family distributed far more evenly.
Participants in these "ensemble cast" productions may feel stressed for time, with all family members feeling the pressure of increased demands. But without one outstanding personality ruling the roost, it's more difficult for anyone to feel superfluous or unimportant. More egalitarian relationships may not guarantee personal happiness - any more than the de-emphasis on superstars will ensure triumph in sports, entertainment, politics or business.
Yet there is something inescapably refreshing, unavoidably American about the new focus on teamwork that seems to be gathering force. After all, the shaping impulse of this country involved an indignant rejection of kingly celebrities, ruling by divine right; the Founders of the Republic demanded a more even distribution of authority and responsibility.
Following those principles, and the astonishing example of this year's Cinderella baseball team, we can all benefit from the lesson that ditching a superstar is at least as likely to generate new energy and victories as it is to produce
JWR contributor, author and film critic
Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three
hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show
broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence .
You may contact him by clicking here.