Yesterday the inductees for next year’s class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame were announced, and to the great pleasure of a substantial body of readers of my blog (and the disappointment of others), the Electric Light Orchestra was at long last announced as an inductee. This means, among other things, that every member of the supergroup Traveling Wilburys has now been separately inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (one of them, George Harrison, twice, as a member of the Beatles and as a solo musician). This is not a phenomenon that is limited to the field of music. In sports too, there are teams that find a substantial number of individual members who are honored as among the greatest of their time, as is the case with, to take an example not at random, the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers. Today I would like to explore the phenomenon by which membership in certain groups tends to elevate the reputation and honor of people far beyond that which they would have achieved alone, regardless of whether this elevated honor and reputation is in fact deserved.
There is some debate, for example, as to the greatest band in the history of Rock & Roll. Yet when it comes to the standard of induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, there are only a few bands that have undeniable credibility that elevates the work of everyone who is connected to them. One of these bands is the Beatles, which ought to come as no surprise, given that every single member of the Beatles (even Ringo Starr!) has been separately inducted either on the basis of their solo careers or their general contribution to music. Of interest here is that Ringo’s contribution appears to have been his All-Star bands where he invited other worthy acts to perform on tour and in the studio with him. Only a few other hands have reached that rarefied space–the Traveling Wilburys, as commented on before, as well as groups like Crosby, Stills, and Nash and Buffalo Springfield. None of the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin members have been inducted as solo artists apart from their admittedly well-regarded bands . There may be a debate as to who is considered the best, but halls of fame are generally good ways for those debates to be settled in the opinion of those who are gatekeepers of historical memory. The 1970s Raiders may not have been that far below the standard of the 1970s Steelers, but there is a yawning gap when it comes to Hall of Fame inductees, and that signifies the verdict of history on who is the greatest, and who was the also-ran.
This standard of group greatness elevating the greatness of each individual member is worth looking at in more detail. Barry Sanders is widely considered to be among the very best running backs to have ever played the game of football, but most of the teams he was on were terrible. He was a superstar, but a superstar surrounded by fairly ordinary talent, and when he lifted them into the playoffs, they were quickly dusted off by greater teams. He received his accolades as an individual, but the team success was lacking and so no one else was lifted with him in terms of reputation or honor. This is not the case with the 1970’s Steelers or with the Beatles. Not only were each of those teams/bands historically great, but they elevated the reputation and honor of everyone who played on them. Would Ringo Starr have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on his solo career alone apart from the honor he gained as a former Beatle? No. Would George Harrison have been? Probably not. In the same vein, would Lynn Swann or Franco Harris have been inducted had they been members of the 1970s Buccaneers instead of the 1970s Steelers? Probably not. Yet all of these people were inducted into their respective halls of fame as members of dynastic teams widely considered to be among the all-time greats. They were all very talented at their craft, but it was their membership in a world-class team that gave them the honor and reputation they had.
There are a couple of fairly ordinary responses that we can have to this reality where some people have a disproportionate share of honor based on who they are associated with. It may be natural, for example, to complain about this obvious injustice, to say that there were dozens of drummers more accomplished than Ringo Starr, or that there is no way that so many Pittsburgh Steelers deserve to be enshrined in Canton. All of this may, in fact, be true, but it is also irrelevant. They have received their honor and the carping criticism of haters will only sound like sour grapes. A more productive response would be to recognize that greatness appreciates the presence of other greats, and to act accordingly. If people receive lasting honor and a noble reputation by the context in which they are in, and not only for their own individual achievement, then it behooves people to seek opportunities to associate with other greats. Why do you think Jeff Lynne and other greats formed the Traveling Wilburys or why Ringo Starr established his All Star Bands and was content to share the limelight with other talented acts? All of them knew that greatness is magnified when other greats are there, and they were successful accordingly both during their times and in the verdict of history afterward. This is true in a staggering amount of endeavors. Was the greatness of, say, William Tecumseh Sherman or George Thomas the less for being subordinate to Ulysses Grant? Not in the least–all are recognized as greats, and the same is true for Lee’s lieutenants like Jackson, Stuart, and Longstreet. Those who are truly great do not suffer because they are in the presence of others equally or even more great. Rather, all benefit from the greatness around them. On the other hand, being among the greatest brigade and division commander did not give the noble Patrick Cleburne a long life or success in his profession (he died in a futile charge on Franklin in 1864), largely because he served some of the most incompetent army commanders in American history, ending up as the Barry Sanders of the Western front of the Civil War.
What does this mean for us? If we truly aspire to greatness, we need to find other people who are great. Those who are truly talented and capable and gifted should not fear the talents and capabilities and gifts of others, but should relish the opportunity to be in a context of greatness. Even those who are not great but are perhaps near-great should relish the opportunity to be around others. Did Sheena Easton mind being a part of the All Star Bands? No. Did Chris Bosh mind being the third wheel of Miami’s Big 3 when it went to four straight NBA Finals and won two of them? Maybe, but he’s not giving his rings back either. Even massive egos can see the benefits of playing with other talented people and put them aside for long enough to win some awards and championships. If these people can agree that working together makes life better for them, then we with less ego should be willing to do the work that is necessary to be able to achieve greatness with other talented people, even if we may rub each other the wrong ways sometimes or find it a struggle to communicate. Being able to collaborate is one of those situations where it clearly benefits us to work with others, and so we need to do what we need to do to overcome the barriers that stand in our way. It’s a lot more fun to win than it is to be the most talented person on a crappy team any day . If you don’t trust me on this, just ask me if you would rather have had the career of Barry Sanders or Ringo Starr. I thought so.
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