Leadership Fit: Right Place, Right Time, Right Glasses

| By TMA World


I want to talk to you about someone you are unlikely to have heard of, unless you follow a football (soccer) team in the English Premier League (EPL).  I have been a fan of Liverpool Football Club (LFC) since I was a young kid playing ‘footy’ in the street with a dog-chewed tennis ball.  While many other kids supported the more glamorous Manchester United team, my sainted Gran was one of a large family from a very poor part of Liverpool.  I had to choose Liverpool. 
Formed in 1892, Liverpool has had a glorious history in English and European football history, with the Golden Era being in the 1970s-80.  The team did win a European Champion’s League Cup Final in 2005 (after being 3-0 goals down at half time), but the last decade has been relatively mediocre by Liverpool standards.  It last won the league title in 1990.

Fenway Sports Group (FSG) of Boston Red Sox fame, took over the club in 2010 after a disastrous era in which two American leveraged buyout specialists brought the club to its knees and made it a laughing stock.  Liverpool became known as “Looserpool.”  FSG brought some financial stability to the club, but that wasn’t enough.  Club managers FSG brought in were good (one was a former Liverpool star player and successful Liverpool manager), but they didn’t last long.  Something was missing.  The club needed an injection of the right on-the-ground leadership.

Anyone who knows Liverpool understands that it is a unique place.  It’s a diverse port city with an over-the-top personality. Liverpudlians (the inhabitants), who are also known as “Scousers” (after a local stew) have a very distinctive accent and sense of humor.  If you ever listened to the Beatles talk (local lads) you’ll know what I mean.  Scousers are also some of the most passionate football fans around.

Without the financial resources of other English clubs taken over by billionaires, can Liverpool ever revive its glory days?  Well, it’s a definite maybe!
Enter the person I want to talk about – Jurgen Klopp (Kloppo) – a successful German football manager who took on Liverpool FC on October 8, 2015.  In a very short time, he has rejuvenated a club without enthusiasm and fight because he’s Kloppo.  Let me just highlight two things he has brought to the club.

Klopp is larger-than life which is a perfect fit for Liverpool.  He looks like a disheveled hipster with his scruffy beard and retro Ray-Ban glasses – there are fans who have adopted this look who are known locally as Kloppelgangers.  He has charisma and an infectious optimism that emphasizes the importance of passion, attitude, and emotion.  He once said, “When you sit in this stadium with your eyes closed, you should sense there is a passionate team on the field below.” 
There is nothing half-hearted about Klopp; when he celebrates goals on the touchline during games he gives the impression of being possessed by a demon.  In describing the style of another Premier League manager he said, “He likes having the ball, playing football, passes.  It’s like an orchestra.  But it’s a silent song.  I like heavy metal.”
Wherever Klopp is, there is fun.  One of his aides says, “We are all hard-working men who are completely serious on the pitch and in our work, but we are also people who like to laugh.  We think football is to be enjoyed.” 
Some think of him as a clown, but he’s an entertaining clown with a serious intent- success for the club.

If you saw Liverpool play pre-Klopp you never knew what you were going to get.  There were some great individual players, but they didn’t seem know who they were as a team.  Klopp’s philosophy is to develop a group of players that is greater than the sum of its parts, and he is doing this by giving the players both a methodology, new sense of belonging, and a collaborative support team.
He calls his methodology gegenpressing (pressing against) – a high-intensity style of play.  Previously when a side lost possession of the ball in the opponent’s half of the field, they would fall back, defensively regroup, and close gaps.  In gegenpressing, when you lose the ball in the opponent’s half you move further into the opposition’s territory to harass them; this closes off their passing angles and causes them to make mistakes thereby creating more opportunities for your team.  More than before, the team has organization; every player knows what is expected of him in different situations.
Klopp’s philosophy, however, is more than about tactics.  At the end of every game – win or lose – you’ll see Klopp go onto the field and hug each one of his players – whether they have been playing for the full 90 minutes or just 15 seconds as a substitute.  He treats every player equally. 
As part of creating a sense of belonging, Klopp also emphasizes celebrating.  There is a story that when he first started coaching the Liverpool team, instead of showing the players videos of other teams, he showed them still photographs of Barcelona players celebrating after scoring a goal (Barcelona is considered by many to be the best team in the world).  Klopp says, “you see them celebrate goal 5, 868 like they’ve never scored before.  This is what you should always feel until you die.”  Pundits who commentate on soccer games are astounded at the change in Liverpool’s team’s spirit; it spills over into the crowd who cheer louder now than they have for years.  It’s a virtuous circle.    
It’s early days yet for Kloppo and Liverpool, but the signs are very encouraging.  As a fan, I get the feeling that the right leader has come to the right place at the right time and is looking at the world through the right glasses – one lens marked Personality and the other Philosophy.  When leadership fits, something special is going to happen!


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