As of 2020, Liverpool Football Club is currently sitting top of the English Premier League football ladder, and regardless if you are a football fan or not, their journey to reach this summit guided by their German manager, Jurgen Klopp provides fantastic insights into leadership in any setting.
Liverpool FC is one of the most successful clubs in English. They’ve won 18 league titles, and 6 European Cups in their illustrious history. But over the last twenty years, league and cup success has been far and few between.
This all began to change in 2015 when Liverpool signed Jurgen Klopp as their manager.
Since then Liverpool have:
- Been runners up in the Europa League and Football League cup competitions
- Been runners up in 2018-2019 English Premier League, and are on track to win it in 2019-2020
- Made it to two successive Champion’s League finals, winning and being crowned Champions of Europe in 2019
- Won the FIFA Club World Cup in 2019
A manager of a football team has a unique challenge – they need to find a way to successfully manage 23 players from a huge range of different nationalities, ages, education and socio-economic backgrounds, who all speak different languages. They also need to find a way to manage people’s egos, when only 11 members of the team can play at any given time.
How has Klopp managed to do this so successfully at Liverpool and what are the lessons for leadership in any context?
#1: Extreme Ownership
Extreme Ownership is an idea popularized by ex-Navy SEAL Jocko Willink in his book ‘Extreme Ownership’, which refers to the leadership philosophy that:
There is no one else to blame; you must own problems along with solutions; commit to lead up and down the chain of command.
Extreme Ownership means you are responsible for not only your tasks as part of your direct role but for all those that affect the overall goal and mission of your organisation.
Watch Jocko share more about Extreme Ownership here:
This theme of encouraging everyone in a team to take ownership of problems and solutions regardless of your title or role is evident in Klopp’s own approach to leadership:
“Everything I do in life is about relationships. Because otherwise you live in a forest or mountain alone, and if you want to be alone and want to be responsible only for the things you and no responsibility for anything else, you have to live alone.
Otherwise, always, when you enter a room, you have a little bit of responsibility for the mood in that room. In a football team, we have to work really closely together.”
Everyone in the team is responsible for the performance of the team. Regardless of whether you are on the bench, you are back-office support staff, or if you are the star striker.
The idea of encouraging an ‘owner’s mindset’ is not uncommon in the business world. While it is often something that is enshrined in company value statements, it often doesn’t translate into tangible behaviour.
In front of the Liverpool FC players dressing room, there is a pledge which includes:
- Everybody uses 100 % of his qualities (ability and skill) for the benefit of the team
- Everybody takes up the responsibility
How has Klopp managed to not only enshrine extreme ownership into the team’s core values but also effectively translated this into real-world actions?
#2: 30% Tactics and 70% Team Building
According to Liverpool’s assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders:
“Jürgen creates a family. We always say 30 per cent tactics, 70 per cent team-building.”
In my own experience of leading teams, I’ve often focused on tactics. I would constantly seek the next business best-selling book and identify from it a new tactic we could implement to grow the performance of our team and our ability to achieve our goals and organisational mission.
Klopp’s insight is that while tactics are important, they only matter if you have a team that is on the same page, and motivated to work hard for each other:
“We all win for each other. We do it for Carol, and Caroline. We do it because we know how important it is to them, and that makes it more valuable and worthy. It feels different. If you have a bigger group to do it for, the better it feels for yourself.”
This I believe is the secret to why Klopp has been able to cultivate extreme ownership in his team – he has focused on team building, and creating strong interpersonal relationships between every member of the team so that there are recognition and an understanding of how your action or inaction impacts the people you care about.
How has Klopp built this shared sense of team?
Klopp has recognised that each person is foremost a human being first, and a football player second. He has prioritised each of his team member’s humanity.
This has manifested in a simple way: He works to really get to know each person in the Liverpool FC team and encourages everyone else to do so as well. For example, Klopp insists that everyone should know everyone’s names and about their lives, including all back-office staff.
When Andy Robertson signed for the club, a member of staff had no clue that the club’s newest signing was soon to become a father. Klopp was furious:
“How can you not know that? That’s the biggest thing in his life now. Come on!”
Klopp takes the time to get to know each member of his team:
“For example, when a new player is coming in, I don’t give them any information, it’s like “Let them play”. I learn about him, what he is doing naturally, and what we want to adjust, and what we want to leave with him. You learn more about your players each day, and how to treat them.”
#3: Building Psychological Safety
Over a 2 year period, Google conducted research to answer the question:
What makes an effective team?
They identified 5 key dynamics that set successful teams apart, the first of which was ‘Psychological Safety’.
Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School Professor coined the phrase ‘Psychological Safety’ in 1999. It refers to the belief that:
You will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.
Edmondson argues that psychological safety isn’t about being nice and cheerful to everyone, and sugar coating issues so people don’t feel threatened or unsafe. Instead, it’s about giving candid feedback, being able to make mistakes and openly admit them and learn from them.
Watch Edmondson explore the concept of Psychological Safety in more detail here:
In short, both Edmondson and Google found that teams that made more mistakes were counter-intuitively more successful than other teams. This is because it encourages people to take more risks, which encourages greater creativity and innovation which can lead to game-changing breakthroughs.
Klopp has recognised this in the environment he has sought to create in his team:
“Football is a game, and you have to play it with freedom. Players make the right decisions when they have confidence, when they don’t have it, then they feel ‘next pass needs to be the goal’ or ‘now we are under pressure and need to force it’.
No! You stick to what you’re doing, try, try and try again. Each missed chance is not a failure, it is information – use it and go again.”
It’s important to note that Klopp believes in providing frank, open criticism and feedback. He provides his team with the space to try and fail, while also providing them with feedback so they can learn and grow:
“This is very important. What we need to create is where they understand completely that the only criticism they need to take is mine – not because I’m the only one that knows anything, but because I’m the one they have to pay attention to.
I’m the one giving them the direction together with our backroom and support team. So it makes no sense to trust what people who are not involved in the process think.”
This is particularly important given global public pressure and scrutiny each Liverpool FC player is subject to depending on their performance in any given game.
Klopp has helped his players screen out the noise of fans and the media commenting on their performance and impacting their game, to enable them to play with as much freedom as possible, which is incredibly powerful.
A Case Study of Psychological Safety in Action
An example of the success of this is seen in the 2nd Leg Semi-Final of the Champion’s League against Barcelona. After losing 3-nil at the Nou Camp in Barcelona, they needed to win 4-nil to successfully qualify for the Final.
Then, this moment of improvised genius occurred…
Liverpool ended up winning 4-nil and went on to win the Champion’s League Final.
On reflection from considering Klopp’s approach at Liverpool, I’ve realised that an area for growth in my own leadership is particularly in focusing more on team building and less on tactics.
While I believe this is something I’ve been getting better at over the last couple of years, I’ve still got much room for growth here, specifically in first understanding my team members better, and then in better facilitating team members understanding each other better as well.
What’s an area you can grow and develop in?
Let me know in the comments!
- A video interview with Jurgen Klopp on his leadership style
- A fantastic podcast that unpacks Jurgen Klopp’s approach in transforming Liverpool FC