When Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool team faces Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League final on 1 June, the team’s third crunch game in less than a month, he’ll be cheered on by a new supporter. That supporter doesn’t follow football, doesn’t understand the rules and didn’t even know his name until a few weeks ago, when Liverpool clinched a historic win against Barcelona.

That new supporter is me. The Liverpool/Barcelona game was background noise in my living room punctuated by roars from the men in my life. Curious about what the fuss was all about, I slowly began to be drawn into the game. Or more particularly I began to be drawn into what Jurgen Klopp was doing on the sidelines – his obvious passion, his body language and how he was leading his team under enormous pressure.

I was transfixed. I saw lots of parallels between how Klopp was behaving and my experience within businesses, backed up by psychological evidence, of what leaders need to do to ensure their teams perform at their best. I started to read about him, watch video interviews and understand more about the man some are speculating could be a future political leader in his native Germany.

What is so special about Jürgen Klopp's leadership style?
What is so special about Jürgen Klopp's leadership style?

He is a superb motivator, who creates an environment of trust. He connects emotionally with his players, giving them an intense sense of safety and belonging.

He puts a greater focus on what happens off the field than on it. “Jürgen creates a family. We always say 30% tactic, 70% teambuilding,” Liverpool’s Assistant Manager Pepijn Lijnders told the Dutch newspaper De Volksrant.

In addition to this focus on the “soft” human side, he is also obsessive about the “hard” tactical side of the game. His “gegenpressing” system means that every player knows exactly what is expected of him in different situations and everyone can play to their strengths.

Motivating the team goes beyond the pep talk
Motivating the team goes beyond the pep talk

His focus is not just on the players. It was a 14-year old ball boy who helped deliver the historic win against Barcelona. On the eve of the match, the ball boys were briefed on how they could best support the players. With minutes to spare, the ball boy in question rolled the ball to the player, which allowed for the corner to be taken quickly, catching Barcelona off guard and so helped to set up the winning goal.

Klopp recognises that success cannot be achieved without setbacks. He puts into practice what several psychological studies have proven – that people perform at their best when they are in a positive frame of mind. He never blames individuals when things go wrong. Instead he takes the pressure away so that they can concentrate on improving for the next game.

He doesn’t believe in pampering the players who in a week earn many multiples of what a typical Liverpool supporter earns in a year.It doesn’t make it any easier to run your heart out when you’ve just woken up in a five-star hotel. Too much comfort makes you comfortable,” he said. Motivating the team goes beyond the pep talk. Klopp talks about the team having to “live” the spirit: “We took the team to a lake in Sweden where there was no electricity. We went for five days without food.”

So how do team dynamics in business compare with what’s happening at Liverpool under Klopp’s watch?
So how do team dynamics in business compare with what’s happening at Liverpool under Klopp’s watch?

Quite poorly, in my experience. Too often teams are thrown together with no attention given to laying important ground work and then business leaders get frustrated when they’re not seeing the expected results.

That ground work for high team performance involves building trust, defining critical success factors, agreeing team behaviours, making people accountable, agreeing how decisions are made and how the team communicates.

On many occasions, the team composition is wrong – leaders tend to gravitate to choosing people like themselves. Too many team members then have the same characteristics and personality types, when all the evidence shows that diverse teams with different but complimentary characteristics perform best.

In many organisations there are star players who are given a lot of latitude but that doesn’t always work in favour of the team. For inspirational leaders like Klopp, the team is more important than the individual. That’s not to say that star players cannot be either creative or flexible but they use such attributes for the benefit of the team, rather than the individual.

S.M.A.R.T. goals
S.M.A.R.T. goals

Businesses love goals that are SMART, the acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. Such goals are rational and logical but fail to capture the energy behind the why.

Dynamic, high performing teams are motivated by a deeper purpose – the “why” about what a business is trying to achieve. The much-quoted story about John F. Kennedy and the janitor is as relevant today as it was almost 60 years ago. The late US President was visiting NASA headquarters and introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor. He asked him what he did at NASA and the janitor replied: “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Klopp ensures his players understand the real prize – it’s not just about the silverware, although that would be a welcome addition to the Liverpool trophy room. It’s also about giving the Liverpool fans something to live for – forgetting their daily routines for that couple of hours each week when they are captivated by watching their favourite team play.

Typically, performance driven corporate cultures dictates that individuals do not show vulnerabilities. Klopp does the opposite. He recognises that his team members are emotional beings first and players second. Creating the conditions where team members can be themselves releases a different type of energy, allowing leaders get the best from their teams.

Trust is at the core of high team performance
Trust is at the core of high team performance

Trust is about vulnerability. How threatening or rewarding is it to take interpersonal risk at work? Will new ideas be welcomed and built on or picked apart and ridiculed? What will happen if your work mask slips?

So if you’re a leader challenged to inspire your team to deliver the results your business wants, what can you learn from the leadership style of Jürgen Klopp?

1. Ensure that trust is the foundation. Cohesive teams are built on the bedrock of trust. This means that individuals can openly share their vulnerabilities, understand and openly discuss each other’s values, strengths as well as weaknesses. Teams with trust are unstoppable.

2. Define success clearly. High performing teams are crystal clear about what they are going after and how they need to align and collaborate to achieve goals.

3. Create a team purpose. Preferably that purpose should be one one that is more than about making profit. Make sure it connects with all team stakeholders and not just those at the top.

4. Identify behaviours. Define what type of behaviours are in or out. “Live” those behaviours by making everyone accountable, including the team star. Never allow individual ego to sacrifice collective team effort.

5. Embrace setbacks. Recognise that setbacks are inevitable. Treat them like pit stops in a learning process where team members need to recalibrate and move on. Never apportion blame because a culture where blame exists is a highly toxic one.

6. Recognise that difference brings strengths. Don’t create a team of clones. Embrace different personality types, talents and preferred team roles.

7. Encourage passionate debate. Great teams have passionate and unguarded conversations, even conflict, not on interpersonal issues but on issues of importance to the business of the team. Polite teams are not high performing ones. If team members are guarded with each other and/or with you it means that as a leader you have not done enough to build trust.

Watching what Jurgen Klopp does on the sidelines during the Champions League final is an important first step in understanding high team performance.

Clodagh Hughes is a leadership specialist who advises CEOs and the C Suite on behavioural change for business growth.