Saad Munir

 Tags: Inside Jana

Being a top-notch individual contributor is hard. It takes a lot of hard work, organization, resilience, dedication, and patience. Being a good manager is just as hard, and requires the same things, and more. What happens when you’re both—an individual contributor and a manager? When I think about great player-coaches, I immediately think of Boston Celtics great and Hall of Famer Bill Russell. He was on the court playing for the Celtics from 1956-1969, and spent 1966-1969 also as a coach on the same team. Here are a few leadership lessons we can learn from Russell on how to juggle the dual role at any organization.


Lessons From Bill Russell: How To Be a Star Player-coach at Any Organization

Lead by example

“The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I’d made my teammates play.” – Bill Russell

Russell was one of basketball’s most prolific player-coaches. As a five-time NBA MVP, he led the Celtics to 11 NBA championships in 13 years. So what made him so special? Former NBA player and head coach, Don Nelson, described Bill Russell by saying, "There are two types of superstars. One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there's another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that's the type Russell was."

The best player-coaches lead by example. That means, if you’re a salesperson, make sure you hit your quota. If you’re a marketer, product manager, or engineer, meet your deadlines. As a professional, ask questions if you have them and speak up if something feels off. Most importantly of all, follow through. If you don’t follow through on your own priorities, then you can’t expect the same from your team. If you lead by example, your team will want to follow you.

Commit to the work

“Commitment separates those who live their dreams from those who live their lives regretting the opportunities they have squandered” – Bill Russell

Bill Russell became the best because of his commitment—he studied his craft, always strived to be the best, and was tireless in his work ethic. In order to be successful as both an individual contributor and a manager, you must be committed to doing the work. Here are a few things I’ve learned about how to stay committed to the work, even when things get stressful.  


  • Meetings are not the enemy. If you’re committed to getting the work done, don’t always count meetings out. Some work can be done over Slack or email, but you would be surprised by how much can be accomplished in 15-30 minutes of face-to-face time. Meetings also help you pick up on the 93% of non-verbal cues—like tone of voice and feedback—that you miss in text conversations. I regularly meet with my team early each  week, to check in on the previous week, identify lessons learned, and address their concerns sooner rather than later. If there is something they need that week, I can make it a priority early on.

  • Stay ahead of the game. The only way to stay on top of your own work and your team’s work is to plan your day in advance. It’s a simple step, but an often overlooked one. I find that to-do lists help me stay on task. Apps have really made this process easy—there’s a reason Productivity is a category in both Google Play and the Apple Store.

  • Routines keep you in check. As a manager and an individual contributor, it’s very easy for responsibilities to grow out of hand. There is nothing wrong with having a regular routine if it means you’re being productive and getting things done. As a salesperson, I need to both prospect new clients and work with my account managers to ensure existing clients are taken care of. I routinely leave my Fridays light, so I can work on any projects from earlier in the week or address any roadblocks my team may be facing.

Understand which leadership style fits best

“What distinguishes a great player is his presence. When he goes on to the court, his presence dominates the atmosphere.” – Bill Russell

Many leaders are either dominance-motivated—those who gain followers through intimidation—or prestige-motivated—those who gain followers by displaying their knowledge and skills. There are strengths and limitations of both styles. Dominance-motivated leaders make decisions quickly and are good at uniting an organization behind a single vision. However, these leaders are sometimes willing to sacrifice the best interest of the group in order to maintain their position of power. Prestige-oriented leaders are good at fostering creativity and motivating their teams to innovate. However, because their power comes from being liked, they can sometimes sacrifice making the right decision in favor of a popular decision.

While one person can follow both methods, research shows that the key to effective leadership is the ability to switch between styles. Bill Russell was able to balance both leadership styles in order to not only lead his team as a coach, but also motivate his teammates to follow him on the court. I’ve found that one of the best ways to balance the two styles, is to know when to listen and when to speak up. I’ve also found it helpful to connect with my team outside of work. You are colleagues first and foremost and are “in it to win it” together. These relationships will build respect and elicit likeability at the same time.

The chances are slim that any of us will become a five-time NBA MVP or an 11-time NBA champion, but we can all learn a few things about being a top-notch player-coach from “The Secretary of Defense.” Want to build your leadership skills at Jana? We’re hiring.