Purpose - This paper aims to look at the role of the top and middle management of the Philips organization during the transition from one type of organizational change to another in the 1990s and the role the history of the organisation played in this process. Design/methodology/approach - The paper analysis is based on historical records, literature and interviews with former Philips top managers. Findings - The paper shows that Philips' leaders used different styles of leadership to create a deliberate atmosphere and willingness to change. The final emergent transformation, however, could only sufficiently materialise while it rejuvenated existing management concepts like Quality Management. The success was partly based on the fact that these concepts played a historical role in the Philips organisation. Originality/value - The paper adds the historical style approach to leadership research and pays attention to the important role of the organization's history during processes of organizational change. © Emerald Group Publishing Limited.