The Butler Way

closeup of basketball net

Can a team thrive without a designated captain?

My initial response was no until I heard Adam Grant detailing the Butler Way on a recent episode of Work Life.

Most college basketball fans remember Butler University’s miraculous back-to-back final four appearances in 2010 and 2011. These runs were not supposed to happen as Butler was a major underdog against powerhouses like Syracuse, Michigan State, and Florida. Yet somehow, some way, those teams found a way to win until finishing runner-up to two other powerhouses in consecutive National Championship games (Duke and Connecticut).

But did you know that Butler did not have a team captain for any of these runs? “Everyone is a captain,” explained former Butler Head Coach Brad Stevens on the podcast. “Everyone is empowered to make decisions, and everyone is held accountable.”

On the surface, nothing is shocking about this statement. It is something regurgitated in various platforms, and especially in business books. But most organizations have a pecking order. So while the teams may nod in agreement that they’re “one team,” and that “every opinion matters,” in practice this is not so. In fact, most organizations have a leader with a title, and that person’s opinion holds more sway.

The amazing thing is that basketball is the same way! It is a “star’s game.” Arguably, no other team sport can be more impacted by a superstar, which is why we know the biggest stars by their first names: Kareem, Magic, Kobe, Lebron, and Michael. Yet even though this is the prevailing culture for basketball, Stevens implemented the “Butler Way” where everyone was together, and on the same level. There was no star hierarchy: The freshman could call out the senior, and the senior listened instead of silencing the ignorant bench-warmer. Everyone, as Stevens detailed, was held accountable.

Teamwork alone did not get them to back-to-back final four appearances, so I am not arguing that talent is meaningless. After all, Butler’s 2010 team featured Gordon Hayward, a future 2017 NBA

All-Star. Yet even still, the team embraced the “Butler Way,” and by almost every account over-achieved to become back-to-back national runner-ups.

What amazes me about the “Butler Way” is twofold.

For one, Stevens clearly communicated the message to the team, and held everyone accountable. I can say that confidently because of the success the Butler team had each year. If that team was not being held accountable, they simply would not have made it as far as they did.

Second, it is apparent that the team was humble enough to buy-in to Coach Steven’s vision. The lack of a captain would not have worked any other way. Mass chaos would have ensued the first time the team lost a big game.

I do not know if the “Butler Way” makes sense for your organization.

What I do know, however, is that regardless of how you choose to set up your organization, it won’t be successful without you—the leader—holding people accountable, or without your followers buying-in to the structure.

That’s what made the “Butler Way” so special…