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Like Abraham Lincoln, bosses should realise success often comes with change in leadership style

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This was recently emphasised by Harvard Business Review (HBR) when it claimed digital transformations failed for several reasons – most often because minor changes at the surface level do nothing to affect the fundamental operations of a company. Real digital transformation, it said, required a change of the leadership team’s core beliefs.

These beliefs about value and how to create it drive the strategies that leaders deploy and the measurement systems put in place to gauge performance and guide decision-making. And in the modern era, the expanding list of disruptive entrants is making it clear that old business models are no longer as attractive as they used to be. As Generation Y enters the job market, they’re shaping a different expectation of leadership. And for leaders today, that means having to adjust their style – something a few companies have cottoned onto.

Take, for example, General Electric CEO and chairman Jeff Immelt’s recent explanation of why industrial companies should be in the information business. “We can’t be an industrial company anymore,” he said. “We need to be more like Oracle. We need to be more like Microsoft.”

Similarly, General Motors decided at the beginning of 2016 to tap into the world of ride-sharing and autonomous cars, with president Dan Ammann claiming that “there’s going to be more change in the world of mobility in the next five years than there has been in the last 50”. This comes after the company’s announcement that it would be investing $500m in Lyft.

So how do you evolve an outdated business model to one that offers better revenue growth? GM and GE are examples that upending core leadership beliefs is the way to go. The business world is evolving, as are customer and employee needs – it stands to reason that business models and leadership styles should follow suit.

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The thought of change shouldn’t be a bad one. In fact, it’s not a new concept, and was used by numerous leaders throughout history. In 1863, the then president, Abraham Lincoln, had a situation on his hands. Civil war divided the North from the South, the Union Army lost a few major battles and his troops were none too happy with his allegedly indecisive attitude. This all changed in a matter of three months when he adapted his leadership style.

The New York Times even expressed gratitude that the nation was being led by “a ruler who is so peculiarly adapted to the needs of the time as clear-headed, dispassionate, discreet, steadfast and honest.” His army also went on to celebrate victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. What changed was that he had reestablished control over the army by becoming firmer with his troops and got rid of some of the old beliefs that no longer worked.

Of course, changing leadership style to address the current business environment comes easier to a few than it does the majority, but when implemented well, it seems to work wonders. Apple, Dyson and Amazon are all good examples of companies that are exemplified by those in charge. These leaders are driven by innovation and creativity, and will try many different methods without the fear of being proved wrong.

Those who choose to be influential could thus benefit from observing the behaviour of other successful leaders – though it’s not to say it’s simply a matter of drawing leadership lessons from others. In essence, the key objective should not be perfection but the creation of a leadership style that is sustainable by being more open to new strategies and ideas and communicate openly.

Also, boards that are willing to take a proactive and bold response can crystallise that rarest outcome of a crisis: an opportunity.

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