The Evolving Leader: An interview with Raphael Honigstein on the Jürgen Klopp story

The Evolving Leader: An interview with Raphael Honigstein on the Jürgen Klopp story
Published: 18 September 2020

The Evolving Leader – Berwick Partners are currently undertaking a series of interviews with business leaders, to understand how the attributes required to be successful are adjusting to the increasing complexities of the world in which we operate. We are examining the importance of leadership DNA and the behaviours, traits and skills that are vital to develop as you progress your career.

As part of this research we were delighted to speak with Raphael Honigstein to discuss one of world sport’s most revered leaders; Jürgen Klopp. Raphael is a renowned expert on football, writing for The Guardian, The Athletic and regularly appearing on BT Sports. He is the author of ‘Bring The Noise: The Jürgen Klopp Story’, the most successful biography of Klopp to date. Here we discuss Klopp as a leader, his style and what shaped his sporting achievements.

 

Success has underpinned a huge amount of Klopp’s managerial career at Mainz, Dortmund and Liverpool. That’s a timespan of decades and hundreds of people to come into contact with. How does Klopp universally get people to follow him and what’s his leadership style?

It’s a combination of his personal skills, charisma and the way he manages to make people feel good. Part of this is making people believe in him first and foremost, but also the substance behind Klopp as a person. I think sometimes people see him on television and think he’s just this guy who is very tactile with his players and jumps around a lot, but we all know this wouldn’t be enough to be as successful as he is. It’s underpinned by hugely successful ideas, an ability to coach players to help them to play better, to improve teams collectively and to learn. Like his teams, Klopp evolves as a person and a coach.

He’s an incredibly intelligent man and adapts well to his surroundings. One of the signs all great leaders have is the ability to surround himself with good people; it’s the recognition that you have the right influences to keep you on your toes.

None of these things are particularly unique to Klopp. Put them all together and in the world of football he manages to combine a lot of traits that not many managers can.

Has Klopp’s leadership style changed as his career has developed?

I don’t think it’s changed much over the years. It’s based on the things we talked about and also being honest with his players. There can be a tendency in football to be a little economical with the truth as managers don’t want to hurt players feelings so they may tell them one thing and do another. With Klopp it’s always been very straightforward, and his players respond to that. This is likely something born out of his own experience as a player where Klopp had some managers who weren’t particularly good at their job and he learnt from these negative experiences.

Rather than have to change his style, Klopp has instead evolved as a leader. The real reason why he remains so successful is that he’s always learning. He learns from his own mistakes and although he was successful relatively quickly in his career, Klopp recognises he’s an even better coach now thanks to the body of experience he has behind him.

In your book ‘Bring The Noise’ you reference Christian Heidel (former GM of Mainz) stating Klopp was the “real captain” even though he didn’t have the armband. Is leadership something Klopp has deliberately focused on developing or is it something that comes naturally to him?

In Klopp’s case, I think the two things don’t contradict. He’s someone who clearly has a natural propensity for it but is also someone who very early on in his career at Mainz tried to foster and develop it. Mainz was a club at the periphery of being a top flight side. Klopp’s nature as a player was to fight and work extra hard to find ways to help the team. In reality, the risk of relegation would have potentially meant Klopp being out of a job and on the street at a time where second division footballers didn’t make a lot of money. When he first became manager at Mainz, it was always a fight for survival against relegation.

This is where we saw Klopp perform like a leader in as much as he maximised performances and helped others to do well and find ways to succeed even though their means were very limited. He thinks about football very deeply; the importance of team spirit and doing everything possible to get the best result.

Earning what he did and with only a few years left of his playing career, Klopp looked into other career avenues such as sports journalism. He fell into coaching. It was at this point he realised he was actually a coach all along without knowing it. The moment he was appointed, he found his true vocation.

Mike Gordon (Director of Liverpool and President of Fenway Sports Group) said of Klopp: “It was clear that Jürgen as a football manager really was on the same level as a corporate leader or someone you would choose to run your company”. Our corporate leaders are currently in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. What’s the biggest crisis Klopp has led through and how did he deal with it?

As a coach it would be his final season at Borussia Dortmund where the club found themselves fighting relegation. As the season quickly progressed, they didn’t fully comprehend what was happening resulting in the club being in the relegation zone come Christmas and at one stage at the foot of the table. This was disappointing considering what they had achieved previously (twice winners of the Bundesliga and Champions League finalists). In the end, they rebounded and finished the season a respectable 7th.

You could actually argue his biggest crisis was the 2001 season when he took over at Mainz who were doomed for relegation. The size of the task was incredible but through Klopp’s leadership the club were able to survive. Twice Mainz missed out on fairy tale promotions to the Bundesliga on the last day of the season which could have caused a crisis of confidence for most people and clubs, but they bounced back in the third season and were promoted. 

On the whole his managerial career has seen steady progression and success but within that there were moments where things weren’t going right and needed a strong response. This is one of Klopp’s strongest leadership traits. The ability to deal with setbacks, not let negativity creep in and reframe these moments for positive effect.

Research out of UCL has discovered a leadership gene (rs4950) and how it interacts with other factors such as a child’s learning environment in the emergence of leadership. If aspects of leadership are hereditary, can we see some of Klopp’s parents in his style?

The people I spoke to for the book who knew his Dad (Norbert Klopp) agreed that Norbert was a larger than life figure, a real smooth talker! He was somebody who could sell things to people and make people laugh. I think we can see all of these traits in Klopp, but I also think he is very much a blend of his parents. His Mum (Elisabeth Klopp) is a lot more relaxed with this motherly touch where she wants everyone to feel happy and secure.

He will have learnt a lot from his Dad and those mannerisms which made him such a popular man.

Klopp’s leadership has led him to the pinnacle of his profession. From this engaging discussion with Raphael, we can see that it is the combination of natural attributes and the deliberate development of them over the years which has helped ensure continued success throughout Klopp’s career.

Berwick Partners are passionate about identifying leaders and helping them to develop.

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