Home > Leadership, Social Psychology > The “Superstar” Trap

The “Superstar” Trap

In the wake of President Obama’s election, it’s easy to forget that in 2007, no one questioned that Hillary Clinton would become the next president. It’s difficult nowadays to remember exactly how far removed she was from all other Democratic contenders. In addition to the qualities that made her the inevitable nominee – name recognition, clout, a campaign war chest – the mere appearance of inevitability brings it’s own advantages: early donations, commitments from precinct captains, general momentum, and most importantly an All Star team of strategists and campaign managers.

Hillary Clinton Campaign Staff

Hillary Clinton’s 2007 Campaign Staff

It’s hard to overstate how much of an effect that last advantage carries. Very few human beings have the experience of running a high-quality national campaign. Those strategists on the A-list are truly superstars in their field. Campaign management is a grinding, heart wrenching trial-by-fire. Many have slogged through losing campaigns for their entire careers before one major win brought them their hard-earned recognition as kingmakers. In 2007, Hillary Clinton had her pick of the very best.

Patti Solis Doyle, a veteran of the Chicago mayoral campaigns and one of the most fervent Clinton loyalists, became the first female Hispanic manager of a presidential campaign. Her deputy, Mike Henry, was one of the key strategists behind the Democratic re-taking of the Senate the year earlier. Mark Penn, the superstar pollster from Bill Clinton’s presidential administration, became Hillary’s personal Karl Rove. Howard Wolfson, a veteran of bare-knuckle New York politics, became the campaign spokesman. Hillary’s campaign COO was a former deputy White House chief of staff. Another of her senior advisers was a former White House communications director. Other notable strategic advisers included famous names like Madeline Albright, Richard Holbrook, Sandy Berger, Wesley Clark, and Geraldine Ferraro.

Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals

Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals

Having this team together was the political equivalent of sending the Harlem Globetrotters to do battle with the Washington Generals; not only was the winner apparent before the game ever started, but they would probably be dancing around their opponents and doing trick moves to rack up style points. No other team could possibly compare. Mark Penn alone is in a league of just two other pollsters – Dick Morris and Frank Luntz – whose interpretations are taken as gospel in political circles. Finally, after assembling all this talent in one place, “Hillaryland” was now set to bring about the result that everyone knew was inevitable.

Does anyone remember how that turned out?

If one judges by the endless, ever-tight primary fight that year, we would tend to draw the conclusion that Hillary’s All Star team was simply the victim of bad luck. The nation wanted palpable change, after all, and Mrs. Clinton had been part of American Political Reality for quite some time. And Mr. Obama had run a very disciplined campaign. And he was a superior public speaker, with a charisma and a capability for human connection that Hillary would openly admit that she lacked. And some of Bill’s comments during South Carolina had hurt as well. So maybe her inevitable run for the White House was simply not in the cards.

That conclusion, however, would gloss over the reality that Hillary’s All Star team was broken and dysfunctional from the first day, and did as much to destroy the Clinton campaign than any actions by her primary rivals. According to the book Game Change, by John Hellemann and Mark Halperin, Solis Doyle turned out to be an ineffectual leader who had no clue how to run a national campaign. Before the Iowa caucuses had even concluded, she was contemplating a way for Hillary to gracefully bow out of the campaign. Mark Penn had a secret cabal going with Bill Clinton, and the two of them were running their own private campaign strategy and undermining the rest of the group. The most basic campaign functions went untended. Important ad money didn’t get approved in time. Important phone calls when unanswered. Hundreds of balls were dropped in every conceivable aspect of the campaign. And most importantly, all the campaign executives hated each other’s breathing guts.

What started as an exercise in raw talent – a group that Hillary saw as emulating Lincoln’s cabinet as portrayed in Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s book Team of Rivals – ended in early primary losses, a major campaign management shake-up, and then finally a total implosion. The All Star Team ended up being less than the sum of its parts.

Steve Jobs, of Apple

Steve Jobs, of Apple

We live in an age obsessed with individual talent. We are easily mesmerized by it. America, from its inception, has valued individual endeavor and has sought to afford maximum individual freedom to facilitate expression and achievement. When we look at success, the easiest way to understand it is as a direct result of the individuals most closely associated with it.  Most of our major success stories – Apple, Google, Amazon – have a name and a narrative associated with them. Business leaders and consultants bow to the alter of some Great Innovator – so much so that we could easily call this decade “The Steve Jobs Era.” In sports we put All Star and fantasy teams together in order to pit the absolute best against the absolute best. Even in the entertainment business, the production models are evolving to emphasize superstars. For the last decade, the most excellent scripted shows have been tightly ruled by a new breed of totalitarian “show-runners” (e.g. David Chase for The Sopranos, David Simon for The Wire, Matthew Weiner for Mad Men, Aaron Sorkin for The West Wing, etc.).

All this begs the question – are we right to worship individual talent alone? Does the success of a group merely reflect the sum of the talent of its individual members?

The truth is that we tend to overstate the role of the individual in complex systems, relying too much on superstars. Our minds are not especially adept at separating those behaviors that come from an individual’s contribution verses those that come from the group itself. We tend to assume that the system – the group, the team, the company, the pack – is simply the sum of its individual members’ abilities. Therefore All Star teams, by definition, will always outperform any other team.

But there’s a catch. The larger and more complex the group, the less it will tend to behave like its individual atoms. It starts developing properties and processes that are unique to the group itself. Which means that as you get into more complex and diverse groups, like corporations or whole populations, macro-level consequences cannot adequately be explained by micro-level changes. This is why the firing of a football or baseball team manager almost never changes the overall team results: the group is behaving somewhat like its own organism, too complex to be set straight by the ham-handed altering of one of its components. Despite this, sports managers are constantly fired and reshuffled to little purpose.

In his book Think Twice, which is all about the value of counter-intuitive wisdom, Michael Mauboussin tell us,

At first glance, signing a star seems like a great idea because of the promise of a quick performance boost. More often than not, however, stars fail to live up to expectations in their new roles. […] To be clear, reversion to the mean probably accounts for some part of a star’s fading performance. But that’s not the whole story. A star’s performance relies to some degree on the people, structure, and norms around him – the system. Analyzing results requires sorting through the relative contributions of the individual versus the system, something we’re not particularly good at. When we err, we tend to overstate the role of the individual.

Increasingly, many are arguing that it’s just as important to have good systems – loosely coupled structures that leverage the group’s aggregate knowledge and abilities – than to rely on the performance of a few superstars.

EnronIn his New Yorker article, “The Talent Myth,” Malcolm Gladwell argues that Enron may have experienced its downfall not in spite of its obsessive quest for employee talent, but rather because of it. Enron’s employee policy was a protocol called “differentiation and affirmation.” Twice a year, managers would hold a brutally honest sifting of all employees into categories A, B, and C. According to Gladwell, “The A’s would be given more challenge and disproportionately rewarded. The B’s need to be encouraged and affirmed. The C’s needed to shape up or be shipped out.”

Seems reasonable so far, except that the rankings were not usually based on performance, but on a subjectively perceived “talent.” And those in category A were rewarded in a hugely disproportionate manner. That is to say, spoiled. They received bonuses that were two thirds higher than those employees in the next thirty percent. They were moved around frequently, and given carte blanche, often times despite a track record of financial failure. And this was done with total disregard to seniority or experience.

Gladwell tells the story of one such employee, Lou Pai, who started Enron’s power trading business:

Pai’s group began with a disaster: it lost tens of millions of dollars trying to sell electricity to residential consumers in newly deregulated markets. The problem, Hamel explains, is that the markets weren’t truly deregulated: “The states that were opening their markets to competition were still setting rules designed to give their traditional utilities big advantages.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that Pai ought to have looked into those rules more carefully before risking millions of dollars. He was promptly given the chance to build the commercial electricity-outsourcing business, where he ran up several more years of heavy losses before cashing out of Enron last year with two hundred and seventy million dollars. Because Pai had “talent,” he was given new opportunities, and when he failed at those new opportunities he was given still more opportunities . . . because he had “talent.”

Southwest AirlinesIn this article, Gladwell goes on to argue that in many cases, it’s more important to have good systems than geniuses, because corporations do more than just innovate. They also execute, coordinate, evaluate and conduct many other processes that rely more on cohesiveness than genius. He gives the example of Southwest Airlines, which is currently the most successful airline in the United States because they have developed a super-efficient team process for getting airplanes back in the air. Gladwell points out that they hire fewer M.B.A.’s than other, less successful domestic carriers, pay their managers more modestly, and promote on the basis of seniority rather than “differentiation and affirmation.” Southwest is not afraid to let the system be the star.

Since that article came out, social media has introduced us to more ways in which a system can deliver better results than a few geniuses. The first thing that comes to mind is the ranking/rating systems on sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Amazon. While it’s true that average people who contribute reviews might not have the same experience or refined sensibilities as a professional critic, we find that the aggregate results of amateur ratings are just has helpful, if not more. I also think about development wikis that organize huge open source development efforts like Linux or Drupal.

Camel: a horse built by committee

Camel: a horse built by committee

So is the group smarter than the individual? Well, it’s certainly not more creative or innovative. The group does not typically come up with better designs or ideas. But if a system is cohesive enough, with diverse knowledge and heuristics, it can coordinate and execute very effectively. More effectively, it would seem, than if it were guided by command from above.

I have a lot of respect for individual creative geniuses. I have experience working for one or two of these personalities, and I’ve seen firsthand the triumph of the single creative vision. I also believe Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner when he tells aspiring writers to never creatively compromise to win a pitch, because no remarkably successful show ever came from the “committee” approach favored by production executives.

But I also know that since their last League Championship Series in 2003, the Cubs have gotten involved in several “sweepstakes” bids for superstar free agent talent. The most famous and expensive of which was for second-baseman-turned-left-fielder Alfonso Soriano in 2007. Soriano had two MVP years for the Yankees in 2002 and 2003, over which span he hit for a .295 average and 77 total home runs (39 and 38, respectively). He is now currently in the fifth year of an eight year, $136 million contract with the Cubs. Last year, he hit just .258 with 24 home runs. If you figure that he earns $17 million per year, that works out to about $708,000 per home run.

Alfonso Soriano

Alfonso Soriano demonstrates his unique fielding technique

The Enron people would let Soriano do what ever he wants: bat third, sit out games, skip practice, because he has talent. He’s a superstar. Never mind that from a production standpoint, he’s now the most expensive thoroughly average player in baseball.

As I watch the Cubs tonight, they are in next to last place in the division, and have lost almost double the amount of games that they’ve won. Yet on paper, they seem like a team that should be winning many more games. In tonight’s game, the first five of their nine hitters had averages above .300, which is a rare feat. But a team is not merely the sum of its members’ abilities. We can’t understand systems by looking at individual elements. We can only understand the team by watching the team.

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  1. July 28, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    I am constantly awed by your thorough and intelligent discussions. Thank you for another well written post, Scott.

  2. July 28, 2011 at 12:50 PM

    Hilary’s campaign also ignored the two groups that Obama made every effort to win over- students and minorities. On the one hand doing so made sense, both groups have a history of apathy towards campaigns. But they came out for Obama because he managed to get both groups to want something, and then promised that he would deliver.

    I think that part of the reason so many people subscribe to the faith in individual talent is because all of us (this perspective is uniquely American) believe that we are all capable of becoming the next Steve Jobs. We believe it because we want to. The idea is based in the focus on individual rights and freedoms that the country was founded on, and it has evolved into a cult of individual talent and personality.

  1. November 14, 2011 at 9:32 AM
  2. December 10, 2012 at 10:02 AM

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