He’s the man of the moment, a legend in Liverpool, and would probably poll highly if he ran to be PM. He’s also a different kind of leader than we have seen traditionally in sport, business and politics. Liverpool football club manager Jürgen Klopp (right) has shown that there is a different way to reach peak performance, that includes purpose and perspective, humility and humour.
He’s now seen as a winner, but Klopp hasn’t always won, and he has built success in a different way from others. We shouldn’t let his Premier League result distract us from appreciating his methods and understanding his approach.
What is it about his leadership that draws admiration and respect from other coaches in football and beyond, as well as business leaders, housewives and politicians?
I believe that Klopp is a brilliant proponent of ‘The Long Win’ – where success is more than simply results, where his perspective has stretched beyond annual cycles of leagues and trophies, and where he has cultivated a family culture of connectedness within his team, the whole club and the wider city of Liverpool.
There are three key elements to The Long Win that Klopp has amply demonstrated.
Klopp brings enormous clear-sightedness to his role. He can see beyond the pitch, beyond the league rankings to understand the social responsibility that comes with being a leader in the world-renowned Premier League.
He shows great respect and knowledge of local footballing history and connects the trivial kicking of a leather-padded sphere to the deep identity and thriving culture of the city of Liverpool. Whatever the immense pressures and expectations on him, it took him no time at all to recognise in the face of the pandemic that the health of one person is more important than any game of football.
Klopp’s ability to stand back from the football-obsessed media and fans rang through his comments when he was asked about what the right thing to do was in the early days of coronavirus. Many a public figure has stepped eagerly into that space – but not Klopp, who immediately questioned why anyone would take public health advice from a footballing coach. If only other ‘celebrities’ realised their influence and took their social responsibility as seriously.
When Liverpool won the Champions League, Klopp agreed with the interviewer that winning was ‘cool’, but immediately added that what he found really exciting and inspiring was ‘development’ – seeing progress in his players, seeing the team improve.
This is how he avoids the results rollercoaster where you’re up when you’re winning and down when you’re losing. Klopp maintains a level-headed focus on constant improvement, on building every element of performance - visible and less visible - ultimately ensuring the best results ensue and doing so consistently.
Klopp describes how his team is not selfish: there are no egos disrupting focus on consistent high performance. He speaks of the ‘family’ at Melwood (the Liverpool training centre) and acknowledges the communitarian role that football plays in Liverpool and the rest of the country.
With Klopp, we get tears and friendships. Such vocabulary is often associated with going soft, with being weak - but there is nothing soft or weak about the way Klopp’s team plays. He and his team are living proof that an authentic, collaborative approach is a vital ingredient in outstanding team performance.
While known for his love of data analysis and the brilliant team of analysts that he has assembled behind the scenes, Klopp does not neglect the development of mindsets, behaviours and relationships, clear that if he had ‘same skills, different mindsets’, he would have ‘no chance’ of achieving what he has.
He does not fall for the ‘data is hard, culture is soft’ narratives that still dominate leadership in both sports and business worlds. And in every interview with him or his players, it’s clear he chooses authenticity over authority.
I was struck by the headline that the BBC Sport website gave to his interview following Liverpool’s recent Premier League victory: ‘everything is possible for us.’ He does indeed say this, but it’s the start of that sentence that is for me so much more enlightening: ‘as long as we stay humble’.
If we get hung up on the results and overlook the key principles that Klopp leads by, then we miss an opportunity to learn about a better way of approaching performance, developing perspective and values, and understanding the wider purpose and social responsibility that comes with any leadership position. Klopp is redefining success in a way that could work for all of us.
Dr Cath Bishop is a rowing World Champion, Olympic medallist and former diplomat. She currently works as a leadership coach and consultant, and teaches at the Cambridge Judge Business School. Her book ‘The Long Win: The Search for a Better Way to Succeed’ will be published in October and is currently available for pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones.