Liverpool FC have become Premier League kings following the resumption of UK football, hitting the coveted target despite Covid-19 disruption to the fixtures schedule and the eerie quiet of crowd-free games.
As pockets of praise bubbled up around specific players, the lion’s share of acclaim was reserved for coach Jurgen Klopp, who has distinguished himself in the public eye with his calm, focus and apparent lack of ego.
Speaking to the media in the run up to confirmation of the club’s Premiership victory, former Liverpool player Jamie Carragher likened Klopp to his legendary forerunner Bill Shankly, who managed the team from 1959 to 1974. “Like Shankly,” Carragher said, “the supporters look to what Klopp says about every situation – and he always finds the right words. Jurgen claims he doesn't prepare what he’s going to say, but I don’t know if I believe him. He has a great ability to communicate, he has this special quality to say the right thing.”
Carragher noted: “Throughout the pandemic, he didn't ever say anything that crossed the line. It wasn’t ever about wanting Liverpool to win the league and not being worried about what the world was going through, although he was so close [to victory]. He always said the right words – not only for Liverpool fans, but for football. Klopp can be very funny, but, on the flipside, when something serious happens, it feels like he is the go-to manager for the league.” (TribalFootball.com, 21 June 2020)
After Liverpool’s league win was confirmed, player Jordan Henderson said of Klopp: “He’s a leader and a great human being and he’s got a great balance between having that relationship with the players and being a friend – but also being … a little bit ruthless at times as well. The biggest thing he’s got is that, no matter what, we all follow him, we all believe in him.” (Evening Standard, 26 June 2020)
In a Liverpool FC victory film issued through the club’s Twitter feed, Klopp said of the past season: “I can read all the stats, I can read all the numbers – it’s just really exceptional. If you would get an award for the biggest development jump I can remember, then it would be the boys who would get that, because it was completely different. We used the base of last year, but we made a big step ahead.” (Liverpool FC on Twitter, 26 June 2020)
Which sort of leadership skills enabled Klopp to create that development jump among his players?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “When you look at what has made a particular figurehead – in this case, Klopp – successful, by definition they have achieved something remarkable. In football, the metrics are extremely straightforward: you count passes, possession, goals, match wins and trophies. So undoubtedly, when you look at our Five Dimensions of Leadership, that person would rank very high on Achievement.
“But when it comes down to explaining what that means in practical terms, what really shocks me is how long we’ve known what we need to do in order to deliver great results. If we refer to Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s landmark 1982 book In Search of Excellence, the eight principles for success that the authors outline are absolutely personified in Klopp. He sticks to his knitting: he only talks about football. For example, he’s been brilliant at saying, ‘I’m not going to speculate on the Covid-19 crisis – my specialist area of expertise is the game.’ He has real authority and credibility when he talks about the sport, because of his own participation in it.”
Cooper points out: “Rather like the England Rugby coach Eddie Jones, Klopp recognises that everyone in the organisation is absolutely critical to team success. From the fans to the backroom staff and the players, everybody knows that they are contributing to the results of the team. Klopp speaks respectfully of his squad, and just as Peters and Waterman advocate closeness to the customer, he is keenly in tune with the fans and communicates to them in a truly empathetic way. And because of how his extraordinary capacity for empathy chimes with his track record, people believe in him.”
She notes: “Football is a harsh world – and because of the sheer volume of variables within the sport, it would be difficult to find a ‘control group’ in which people are either not doing the things that Klopp has been doing, or have done the exact opposite. If we think back to Leicester City’s Premier League win of 2016, sometimes a group of people get together and unlock quality in a truly synergistic way. In Liverpool’s case, we may not know how much of their win is down to Klopp or coincidence. But what we can say about him is that he doesn’t make enemies, he doesn’t fall out with the media, he doesn’t criticise referees or other managers. He conducts himself with absolute integrity.”
With all that in mind, Cooper says: “If we go back to our Five Dimensions, we can conclude that the guy is genuinely authentic in terms of his track record; he talks from the heart, but not in an overtly impassioned or divisive sort of way; he has a clear vision of what he wants from Liverpool, based around an ethos that every player matters; he has expressed a high degree of discipline and resilience, which underpins his achievement – and in terms of ownership, Klopp has never been an externaliser of things that have gone wrong: instead, he shoulders the responsibility and owns any mistakes. And his ability to collaborate and work alongside stakeholders seems to be quite exceptional.”
She adds: “Underlining all of that is a huge sense of empathy – he has an intimate understanding of his stakeholder groups, and one assumes it extends to the relationships he has with every single one of his players. That’s how you encourage footballers to see that they need to be at their very best individually to create success as a team.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on delivering outcomes
Image of Jurgen Klopp being held aloft after Liverpool FC’s Champions League win last year courtesy of Cosmin Iftode, via Shutterstock