A few weeks after Caleb Martin joined the Miami Heat, he didn’t yet have much social capital with his teammates. But he had been a backup player for most of his career who knew that it was important to get along with the stars — and Jimmy Butler, a six-time All-Star and the team’s leading scorer, was unquestionably Miami’s biggest.
Martin had heard that Butler had an aggressive personality, that he was known to bark at teammates and coaches. But Martin wasn’t thinking about the potential consequences of upsetting Butler during a pickup game on one of those early days. He made a move just as Butler was passing to him, and the ball sailed out of bounds. Martin could tell Butler was frustrated. He marched up to Butler and said, “Anything you got a problem with, come say it to me.”
For a split second, Martin wondered if his boldness would irritate Butler. He wasn’t even on a full-time N.B.A. contract yet. But it didn’t.
“He didn’t view it as disrespectful or nothing like that,” Martin said. “As much accountability as he puts on other people and holds other people to, he holds himself to it. It’s a two-way street. He allows feedback.”
Butler’s reputation for being brash and aggressive is not without merit, and he has called out Martin’s mistakes plenty of times. Butler doesn’t shy away from airing his grievances, yelling in team huddles, at opponents, or sometimes at nothing at all. He’s just as loud with his encouragement.
The Heat’s opponent in the N.B.A. finals, the Denver Nuggets, have a different type of leader in Nikola Jokic, who is quieter. He doesn’t make speeches or chastise his teammates, and he rarely shows much emotion during games.
Their contrasting styles illustrate ideas that leadership experts have highlighted for decades. The underlying ethos that both players follow seems to matter more than how their leadership manifests.
“It’s such a great example of avoiding this sort of static concept of ‘what does it mean to be the best kind of leader?’” said Peter Bregman, an author and executive coach who works with leaders of major corporations. “Because here you have two completely different people who lead in very, very different ways, equally effectively. And so it sort of betrays this concept that there’s a best practice in how to do this.”
Professional basketball offers a helpful guide to understanding leadership. The best N.B.A. players make split-second decisions in front of thousands of people live and millions more who watch on television. Their actions off the court are scrutinized, and sometimes they are blamed for their teammates’ mistakes. But no matter the results of their decision-making, they must often return to lead the very same people the next day.
When Nuggets players are asked about Jokic’s leadership style, they say he leads by example, more than with words.
“He’s professional in every aspect of the game,” Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “Just seeing that, seeing it on the court, makes everybody want to play basketball with him and want to play better.”
When Butler’s teammates are asked about his leadership, they allude to the edge in his personality, but that edge comes from a passion they can understand. They say he holds people accountable, but their collective goal — to be the best team in the N.B.A. — is clear in Butler’s critiques.
He also embraces the responsibility that comes with being the team’s leader.
“He’ll do anything for you,” Miami Heat center Cody Zeller said.
Some scholars might explain those differences using leadership language focused on tasks versus relationships. Afsaneh Nahavandi, a professor of management at the University of San Diego, sees Butler as a more task-oriented leader and Jokic as a more relationship-oriented leader.
“Every leader is getting something done, so everybody has a task in mind,” Nahavandi said. “But do you approach it through pushing the task and pushing people? Or do you approach it through let’s just kind of let people develop their own thing and focus to make sure that people are happy?”
That leadership framework was examined in the 1960s by the psychologist Fred Fiedler, who studied leadership among high school basketball players. Basketball offered a well-controlled way to understand how a group of people who needed to achieve one task together responded to different leadership styles.
Fiedler also found that leaders’ successes are heavily dependent on their environment.
Butler’s style hasn’t worked everywhere. When he played for the Minnesota Timberwolves, his teammates didn’t respond well to his demanding nature, and Butler left the team after insisting on a trade.
But in Miami, the so-called Heat culture demands excellence, commitment and a thick skin.
“My style of leadership works here,” Butler said, making air quotes around “leadership.” He added: “It really is a match made in heaven. I love it here.”
Sometimes Butler’s style leads to explosions, like in March 2022, when Butler and Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra screamed at each other during a game and had to be held back by other players. Today, Spoelstra speaks about Butler with reverence.
“I don’t want him to ever apologize for who he is and how he approaches competition,” Spoelstra said. “It’s intense. It’s not for everybody, and we’re not for everybody. That’s why we think it’s like an incredible marriage. We never judge him on that. He doesn’t judge us for how crazy we get.”
The Nuggets demand excellence, too, but the language they use about one another is often gentler. They like to talk about their collaborative nature.
“We have guys that understand that being selfless is a huge part of being a Denver Nugget,” Coach Michael Malone said. He added: “You have to have guys that get along — on the court, off the court — and come together and share in a common goal.”
It hints at a culture where a less confrontational style, like the one Jokic adopts, could work.
Jokic’s teammates seem to respond well to that quieter form of leadership, though some have tried to help him tap into a more commanding demeanor at times.
DeAndre Jordan, a 15-year veteran, pulled Jokic aside during training camp to encourage him to be more vocal.
“At first he was like: ‘Brother, I don’t do that. You have to do it,’” Jordan said.
But Jordan and other veterans kept encouraging him. A few months into the season, they saw him start to assert himself more in huddles and offer feedback to his teammates. He doesn’t take it beyond the bounds of what makes him comfortable, though.
“We don’t want him to be somebody who he’s not,” Jordan said. “I’m sure he doesn’t want to be that as well.”
Though Jokic and Butler use very different styles, they have earned the trust of their teammates.
Chris Adkins saw clues to how they developed that trust when he watched some of their interviews. Adkins, the academic director of leadership development at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, saw a manifestation of research that he said has shown that “ability, benevolence and integrity” are three essential components of fostering trust.
“Their players seem to buy in, whether it’s a more vocal or more quiet approach, because they know deep down this person has high ability, they’re consistent with great integrity, they practice what they preach, they walk the walk,” Adkins said. “But they’re also committed to us, not just to their own ego.”
Jokic is well known as an unselfish player; he averaged 9.8 assists per game this season. He has often said that his basketball ethos came from a coach in Serbia who told him that when you pass you make two people happy, but when you score only one person is happy. He eschews credit when he speaks to reporters and is quick to praise his teammates.
Butler grew up outside of Houston and was kicked out of his home as a teenager. After high school, with little interest from major college programs, he spent a year at a junior college in Texas, before going to Marquette. Though Butler makes fewer assists than Jokic, he also plays in an unselfish style, and he instills confidence in his teammates.
Butler has balked at other Heat players being called “role players,” saying he prefers to simply think of them as teammates. When asked if he was too passive in the Heat’s Game 1 loss, when he scored just 13 points, Butler said he wasn’t and that he planned to keep looking for his teammates throughout the series.
It can take Heat newcomers some time to understand how Butler operates.
Kyle Lowry joined the Heat in 2021, two years after Butler did. Lowry was a six-time All-Star guard coming from a leadership role in Toronto, which won a championship in 2019. He made clear he loved Butler’s thirst for winning and his devotion to his teammates, but also said his personality is “very different.”
“He may say some things or he may do some things that you might be like: ‘Oh. Whoa.’ But it’s coming from the best part of his heart,” Lowry said.
How does he know?
“We’re around him every single day,” Lowry said, before throwing in a good-natured dig. “Unfortunately. But fortunately.”