Can leaders really change their style?

Whether it’s autocratic, democratic or just plain laissez-faire, business leaders all have their own style, and tend to gravitate towards the cultures and organisations that are best suited to it.

What happens when they suddenly find they need to change their leadership style, for example, after a merger or acquisition, where two very different cultures collide, or following a move to a different size of company in a different sector? Can they adapt their default style to their new situation, or just like the leopard in the old adage, can leaders never really change their spots?

Troy Wade, co-founder of Brown&co thinks not. He said: "Certain characteristics are common to most decent leaders; empathy, courage, vision, and passion, etc. How a particular leader chooses to embody these characteristics can only be in a style that is authentic to them, because 'authenticity', rather than style, is one of the foundations of true leadership, i.e., creating followers.

"Bill Gates can only ever have an introverted style; Richard Branson a charismatic style, but both are excellent leaders. So there are only two options when appointing a leader: choose the leader for the situation or culture, or allow the leader to create the situation or culture."

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Others insist that leaders can adapt their style. Matthew Blagg, CEO of peer-to-peer board community Criticaleye says: "It is important not to confuse leadership style with personality, but it is perfectly possible to learn and change as a leader, or take a different strategic direction, with the right external impetus and reference points, while maintaining the personality traits which motivate and inspire people within the organisation."

Much depends on the situation that is calling for a change of style. Mark Whybrow, founder of leadership development consultancy Engage Technique has worked with leaders who have found it difficult to move from a small business to a large one, and vice versa.

He says: "It comes down to leaders as humans, and being used to how things work and what their view of 'normal' is. I recently spoke to a senior leader in financial services who is finding it challenging moving from a global super-blue-chip to an aspiring UK corporate. The culture of personality and the skills needed for stakeholder influence are required in both, but perhaps the shadow of a single personality is stronger in a smaller company, so the need to develop chemistry and influence is concentrated in only a few individuals.

Read: Is the future of leadership collective?

"Equally, I hear leaders complain about an overly corporate culture when moving from small to large, by which they mean they have to speak to a few more people rather than just 'go do'. Neither is easier and both require you to understand the rules and be smart enough to play well."

Boris Bogaert, CEO and co-founder of expense management start-up Xpenditure experienced the challenges of becoming part of a larger, global corporation when his business joined forces with French multinational Sodexo and business travel booking platform iAlbatros earlier this year.

He said: "We tend to stereotype big corporations as slow, risk-averse and hierarchical, the complete opposite of what start-ups represent, and fusing the two can appear almost impossible. While there is some truth to that, I believe in the right fit and the right partner. By choosing the right corporation, a start-up can benefit from a strong partnership that can help it thrive, and luckily that was the case for us."

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Nevertheless as COO of the joint venture, Bogaert had to adapt his leadership and management style to the needs of an international workforce and unite the teams around shared interests to create a winning culture.

He said: "Merging teams and getting them working together as quickly as possible is a huge challenge. This does take time and energy, however, commitment and belief in what you are doing yields great results. I regularly travel to Poland to visit iAlbatros and get to know every member of the team. When you make this effort, the decisions you take are more likely to be welcomed with enthusiasm.

"There’s no doubt that reconciling cultural differences and different working styles is sometimes challenging, but the key to leadership is the ability to adapt. It means constant questioning and adjusting. A true leader should embrace change and use it as an opportunity to learn and grow."

In a situation such as a merger or acquisition it isn’t just the leader who has to adapt to a sudden shift in culture. Big change impacts everyone and often the team will look to the leader to simultaneously show humanity and empathy that they are also feeling it, but also a clear-eyed focus on an inspiring future.

The ability to achieve this comes down to self-awareness, says Whybrow. "As a leader you can only do this if you are in touch with your own emotional reaction and ensure that you send the right messages. The anxiety often means that leaders avoid the difficult conversations at a time when the team need it most.

"Knowing your own natural style, understanding your own reaction and being smart enough to flex that style authentically makes the difference between a trust builder or an autocrat, just when it matters."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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