In Klopp we Trust: The Servant Leader for a Team, a City and a Sport

By Dr Graham Manville

This blog follows on from my February 2020 blog and continues the leitmotif of sport as a metaphor for business management and the theme of this blog relates to the leadership style of the Liverpool Football Club Manager, Jurgen Klopp. There are many leadership styles discussed in business literature with two of the most common being: transactional leadership which is a “carrot and stick” approach to leadership involving key performance indicators and personal performance reviews and Transformational Leadership which is the big vision of a charismatic leader popularised in Collins and Porras’ Big Hairy Audacious Goals described in their book Built to Last. One of the most famous examples  of a BHAG is President Kennedy’s Man on the Moon goal. The vision does not require a detailed roadmap, but it serves as a clarion call for the workforce to mobilise the best of their talents to achieve the goal  which is championed by a charismatic leader.

Jurgen Klopp’s leadership transcends sport and could be characterised as Transformational Leadership, but it is much more than that. He  develops a real connection with everyone surrounding the team from the toilet cleaner to the owners he treats everyone with the same respect.  His leadership is the embodiment of an emerging leadership style suited to our post Covid 19 uncertain times of “being in it together”. Servant Leadership theory is almost 50 years old and remained an obscure sub-genre of leadership until the last decade. It was coined by Greenleaf in 1970 and is defined as: first among equals where the leader puts his/her followers ahead of themselves.

In October 2015 when Liverpool Football Club appointed Klopp he was already a proven charismatic leader from Germany. He had taken minnows Mainz Football Club to the top tier of the Bundesliga, Germany’s Premier division. He went onto greater things with Borussia Dortmund winning Bundesliga Titles including a cup double. The Bundesliga website proudly celebrates that Klopp was made in the Bundesliga”. More than a decade after he left Mainz their fans pay their homage to their servant leader.

The banner at Mainz in 2019 when Klopp was conferred as FIFA World Coach of the Year translates: “For us it was clear all the time, now it is official: ‘Jürgen Klopp is the best of the world.’”

At his first Liverpool press conference, he was welcomed on Merseyside and he immediately disarmed his critics by referring to himself as the “Normal One” the antithesis to Jose Mourinho’s “Special One” tag.  This soundbite effectively communicated that this was a “servant leader” who sought to inspire his followers.    According to van Dierendonck (2011), servant leaders display: Authenticity (he wears his heart on his sleeve and cares about the bigger societal issues); Interpersonal Acceptance, Klopp is a tactile leader and has also cultivated a special relationship beyond Liverpool Football Club and the city. He has earned respect from fellow managers and more importantly they genuinely have affection for him. Such admiration has not been witnessed since the days of the late great Bill Shankly. Finally, Providing Empowerment and Direction – when Jordan Henderson signed a new contract in 2018, Klopp challenged Henderson who led his team to the 2018 Champions League final to raise the team game to a new level. “The best thing is, I think – in fact, I know – he (Jordan Henderson) will get even better in these coming years,” (Jurgen Klopp Sept. 2018).

2018: They say a picture tells a thousand words: Henderson standing in the “Anfield Walk of Champions” feeling the weight of Klopp’s expectation on his shoulders.

Following Champions League success in 2019, Klopp inspired Henderson to lead the team to the “holy grail” of the 2020 English Premier League Championship and Henderson was duly awarded the Football Writers Association Men’s Player of the year in July 2020. The impact Klopp has had on Henderson cannot be overstated and is shown in the video footage of Henderson watching Klopp’s video message of congratulation where he ”teared up”. Klopp himself was awarded the FIFA World Coach of the Year in 2019 and demonstrated humility paying tribute to his team and also plugging his work with the Common Goal charity where players and coaches pledge 1% of their salaries to the charity..

2020: The updated “Walk of Champions” at Anfield which includes the latest trophy haul

Klopp’s Servant leadership extends to club owners too! With his Lean approach to football i.e. “doing more with less” he has helped Liverpool assemble a 1 Billion Euro team by value.  Liverpool although a big club relative to other teams in the Premier League do not have the spending power of rivals such as: Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea and instead rely on shrewd purchases and sales. For anyone in any doubt that Klopp can inspire business leaders, watch this video of how he has helped increase the value of his club exceeding 2 Billion Euros. You could say that Liverpool was made for Jurgen Klopp and Klopp was made for Liverpool. The lack of spending power is still an issue as Liverpool recently lost out in the battle to Chelsea for the signature of star striker Timo Werner.

Servant Leaders also do not shy away from tough decisions and Klopp has demonstrated this on several occasions most notably with his handling of Kop favourite, Defender Mama Sakho who would not follow the team rules which led to him being sold to Crystal Palace in 2017. As  recently as last week  we see the humility that he demands of Liverpool Football Club when he admonished his own bench who were celebrating the sending off of a Chelsea player at Stamford Bridge during their latest game in September 2020. The man is a class act and a true servant leader of Liverpool and its club.

Proud Captain with the Champions League & Premier League trophies accepting his FWA Player of the Year Award and paying tribute to the Liverpool Team.

Despite Klopp’s successes and the affection people have for him throughout football and beyond football,  the Shadow of Shankly looms large but in 2020 he has made the city of Liverpool proud once again and the hand of destiny is on his shoulder.

For more information on Servant Leadership and Work Outcomes by Dr Graham Manville read his co-authored work with researchers from Australian Universities Monash University, Deakin University and Swinburne University

For more research  by Graham Manville see his Google Scholar profile.





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