KEVIN MCCALLUM: The sign of Klopp’s leadership: knowing when not to lead
His decision shows integrity, and that he is committed to those he leads
The reach of the aura of Jürgen Klopp is such that a few days after his announcement that he would be stepping down as manager of Liverpool at the end of this season, The Economist magazine used him as the basis for a piece on the importance of energy in leaders.
“Jürgen Klopp is a football manager. That means there is a limit to how much he can teach corporate bosses about how to do their jobs. Managers in firms tend not to be parent substitutes to their charges, envelop people in bear hugs after a successful meeting or use the gegenpressing technique against rivals. But Mr Klopp has drawn back the veil on a crucial ingredient of success in almost every walk of life: energy.”
Klopp’s well of seemingly endless energy is running dry. It’s as simple and astounding as that, but it does nothing to ease the shock of his departure two years before his contract is due to end. As a Liverpool fan I felt numb as I watched the recording of his announcement. As a man who is seeking to make his small way in the world again, I felt admiration and jealousy.
To have that sense of self-awareness, the wisdom to know when you are too close to the edge and the courage to take decisive action for yourself and those close to you is a trait all should have. Few do. Few know when to walk away, to admit they need to shift and transform. To be able to say, as Klopp did, that “I can’t do it on three wheels, I don’t want to be a passenger” is the sign of not only a man who is present in himself but the mark of a truly great leader.
Those should be the listed qualities for anyone seeking a position of leadership, the ones that should be asked before the ballot box is stuffed with confusion, hope and trepidation. Recognising when your bit is done, holding on to glories past and futures wished for, leaving if you cannot fulfil the promises you made and before the balderdash and filibustering begins. A leader knows when it is time to go.
As Christopher Binding, from Bristol, wrote in a letter to the Guardian: “Could this government not learn something about integrity and humility in public service from the example set by Jürgen Klopp and his admission that he no longer has the energy and appetite necessary to continue to do his job to the standard it demands?”
As a leader, in business, sport, community and politics, if you are ever asked or have ever asked yourself, “Why are you still here?”, that is the time to go. When those who work for you start quitting in numbers, it is time to go. When you stop taking risks, it is time to go. When, as British radio host James O’Brien tweeted, “It would be nice if a few Tory politicians did the jobs they’ve got instead of devoting all of their energies to securing the ones they want next,” then it is time to go.
And most of our leaders know this, but the temptation is to hold on as desperately as a one-armed bandit with an itchy bum clinging on to the edge of a cliff. The bandit leaders are in plain sight around us. It’s SA’s true growth industry.
Klopp has never hidden his politics, which are on the left. His understanding of socialism echoes Bill Shankly, the Liverpool manager he has been most compared with. Both lifted this great club out of the doldrums and brought it not only glory and success, but gave it a sense of hope, optimism and, indeed, defiance. He understood the soul of the people of Liverpool as a working-class city and that is why he has become so adored in his nine years.
“My political understanding is this,” he added. “If I am doing well, I want others to do well, too. If there’s something I will never do in my life it is vote for the right.”
It echoed Shankly many years before: “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.”
Those are the mantras of true leaders, not some distant and unattainable dream of a socialist utopia. Like Shankly in 1974 when he resigned, Klopp in 2024 is leaving his team in a stronger place than when he took over. Leaders work until their time has come.
“In admitting that his energy stores are now becoming depleted, Mr Klopp has offered an unusual reminder of how punishing leadership roles can be,” wrote The Economist. “His decision to hang up his Liverpool tracksuit brings to mind the aphorism of another great football manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Hard work is a talent, Sir Alex liked to say. But it is also just hard.”
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