Seven questions on Catalyst Leadership

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Sohrab Salimi

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It took two decades after the Agile Manifesto was written in 2001 and a global pandemic with COVID-19 for almost all organizations to realize how important business agility is. Even if you are not a tech i.e. software company, an organization's ability to respond to change is not only an important competitive advantage it is also the difference between life or death.

I hate to say it, because honestly the term VUCA seems to be overused, but never in our life-time has the world been so volatile, so uncertain, so complex, and so ambiguous. No matter how smart you are, nobody can predict what the future brings. This does not mean that solid analysis is worthless, but adaptability i.e. agility is even more important.

Why catalyst leadership matters?

As with all changes in organizations, an agile transformation starts with and is driven by the leaders within that organization. In contrast to many other change initiatives, an agile transformation and ultimately the agile organization require leaders that think and more importantly act differently. These new behaviors (described below) are what we refer to as catalyst leadership i.e. the ability to speed up decision making through decentralizing the decision making authority to the people closest to the information and the customer.

Based on our experience it is crucial for any organization aiming to be agile to not only focus on new ways of working e.g. Scrum, Design Thinking, and Kanban or approaching project management in a different way, but more importantly focus on creating the right leadership behaviors through developing their existing leaders and/or promoting leaders with the right skill- and mindset into relevant leadership positions. What a catalyst leader is and how catalyst leadership looks like is the focus of this post.

What is a catalyst leader?

There are various sources for catalyst leadership and it is very hard to assess who coined the term first. Personally, I came across the terms catalyst leader and catalyst leadership through the book "Leadership Agility" written by Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs. In their Leadership Agility framework the Catalyst is one of five leadership levels which also include Expert, Achiever, Co-Creator, and Synergist. The book itself is a bit dry, but certainly recommended if one wants to dive deeper into understanding the framework and the differences between the different leader types. There will be a comprehensive list of recommended books at the end of this article.

In addition to the book Leadership Agility, the term Catalyst is frequently referenced based on the VACC (Visionary, Architect, Catalyst, and Coach) leadership model created by McKinsey & Company. In their 2019 article The new roles of leaders in 21st century organizations McKinsey advocates that "today's complex business environment calls for a new approach to leadership with four new roles: visionary, architect, coach, and catalyst".

Being a medical doctor and thus very science oriented, I always interpreted the term Catalyst as something that speeds up reactions. In the case of leadership and organizations, a Catalyst catalyzes the speed of decision making to ultimately allow for faster inspect and adapt cycles. They don't do this by taking more and more decisions themselves, but by enabling and empowering people close to the customer and close to the information to take important decisions. A great case study on how this was done is captured in the book Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet. You can also watch a brief and nicely done video with the key messages from his book here:

Turn the ship around by David Marquet

What are key characteristics of a catalyst leader?

In the above mentioned article, McKinsey & Company characterizes the Catalyst in the following way: "As catalysts, leaders unleash energy throughout the system. They do this in four primary ways: remove roadblocks that prevent empowered teams from bringing ideas to reality; foster connections across the organization; help people connect what they’re working on to the organization’s vision and aspiration; and finally, encourage an inclusive and welcoming environment of wholeness, where people can bring their authentic selves to the office, work in energizing and sustainable ways, and pursue the full range of their personal and professional aspirations."

For us this is a bit vague. We believe it needs to be much more concrete and tangible so that people aiming to become catalysts can actually grasp it. In our Certified Agile Leadership training and our self-paced online course for Agile Leaders we characterize a catalyst with the following attributes.

  • A catalyst is aware that in order to achieve anything great, a leader needs to create a great culture first. A culture where it is about "we" and "us" instead of "I" and "them".
  • A catalyst leader creates and communicates a clear purpose and vision for the organization. Based on this, they co-create the strategy with their leadership team. In order to do this any catalyst leader needs to have great communication skills.
  • A catalyst leader focuses on growth rather than pure winning: sustainable growth of the business, growth of individuals and teams, and their own growth as a leader. This also means that a catalyst values life-long learning.
  • In order to achieve growth of individuals and teams, a catalyst acts in many cases as a coach i.e. as someone focused on the systematic development of their people. This is not equal to the leader being a coach, but it requires the leader to have coaching skills.
  • In order to achieve sustainable growth for the organization, a catalyst leader understands that innovation is essential and also that innovation can only be created through experimentation. This requires a culture of psychological safety, collaboration, and true transparency.
  • And finally, a catalyst leader knows that true collaboration can only happen when there is mutual respect, but also people are not afraid by challenging each others ideas. In order to encourage people challenging the leader's ideas a catalyst says things like "I might be wrong" which gives people permission to share critical feedback.
What is a catalyst leader?

As part of my online course for Agile Leaders, I have created a short video talking about the Catalyst Leader.

What is a catalyst leader?

Who are examples of catalyst leaders?

Some of the great leaders of our time e.g. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos demonstrate many of the key characteristics of catalyst leaders. This list is of course not complete... There are so many other leaders that probably would be better examples, but I selected these three as they are well known.

Did and do all of them act 100% of their time as pure catalysts? Of course, no! The art is to know when to act in a certain way e.g. when to let teams take decisions and when to step in as a leader. Amazon refers to this as type-1 and type-2 decisions.

Are all of them considered as nice people? To be honest, I did not get the chance to meet any of them. Based on books and interviews, I get the sense that all three of them are in some aspects weird and in some aspects normal people. We all have our flaws. The reason I bring this up is that too often do I see people connecting catalyst leadership with the leader being nice and serving the team. That is not the case. Being nice and speeding up decision making in an organization are two very different dimensions. Do I prefer a nice catalyst leader? Of course I do ;-)

Our perspective on when to apply catalyst leadership.

How to become a catalyst leader?

The beauty of the Leadership Agility Framework lies in its demonstration that leaders can develop from Expert to Achiever to Catalyst. There are many dimensions to consider with the most relevant ones being:

  • Time: For any person to develop new skills it takes time.
  • Self-awareness: One must first be aware that one needs to improve to embark on a continuous personal development journey.
  • Situational-awareness: The ability to quickly grasp what type of action is required.
  • Practice: In order to be able to instinctively and consciously act and lead in a certain way requires a ton of practice.

There are concrete tools and techniques that leaders can use to increase their level of self- and situational awareness. Tasha Eurich, the world's thought leader on the topic of self-awareness, wrote a great book full of stories about self-awareness unicorns i.e. people that managed to significantly increase their level of self-awareness to become more successful leaders. One of the historic characters she covers is no other than George Washington. I can highly recommend Tasha's work and especially her book "Insight". In one of our Agile100 online conferences I had the chance to interview Tasha on the topic of self-awareness and we documented our learning in the below sketch note.

Tasha Eurich - Self-Awareness

Changing mindset is about changing habits. And changing habits only happens through changing actions. We need to do things over and over again until we built the neurological pathways and muscle memory. James Clear outlines really well in his best-seller "Atomic Habits" how a change in habits can be approached systematically i.e. step by step.

Topics that many leaders start working on first are communication, conversation style, meeting structure including facilitation, and sharing and receiving feedback. Leaders need to create training situations into their daily work as compared to athletes we normally do not have a ton of time to train as we are constantly "in the game". Another great way to develop as a leader is to get executive coaching.

When to apply catalyst leadership?

There is a great quote by Vince Lombardi saying "Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence." I believe it is very similar with acting as a catalyst leader. Even if can't and probably won't act 100% of our time as catalysts, we can aim to be a catalyst as much as possible.

In addition to our personal development i.e. increasing our level of self- and situational awareness and practicing new behavior, there are a few other factors that determine whether we as leaders can act as catalysts and be successful.

  1. Clarity
    To what extent do people in our organization have clarity on where we as an organization want to go? If clarity is missing, most probably people won't be able to take decisions that support our organization achieving its goals. If there is a lack of clarity its mostly due to leadership communication or lack there of.

  2. Competence
    How competent are our people to take meaningful decisions? This relates to both domain expertise i.e. knowledge about customer needs, competitive landscape, etc. but also general problem solving skills. If we believe our people lack competence it is our job as leaders to first enable them before we can empower them.

  3. Commitment
    Are people committed to achieving the organizational goals? Is the team working on the product passionate about their work or are they just logging hours to demonstrate they are being busy? Do we have a group of missionaries or mercenaries? It is a leaders job to ensure an organization has missionaries working there. This is partly based on crafting and sharing a compelling organizational mission and product vision, but also it is based on recruiting and keeping the right people.

  4. Courage
    Are people courageous enough to take important decisions or do they post-pone decisions and become too slow? Once people are enabled to take key decisions i.e. they have clarity or as Reed Hastings the CEO of Netflix would say context and they also have competence, it becomes a question of courage whether they are willing to take difficult decisions or not. A psychologically safe environment, a culture of experimentation and dealing with failure are all ingredients in creating more courageous individuals and teams. If people are afraid of punishment they will always play it safe. But if they are hungry for winning and success, they will take risks.

As a leader, as a change maker, it is your job and also your opportunity to create the right environment for your teams and your organization to succeed. And at the same time, this will result in you succeeding. As with many things in life, it is not necessarily about the destination, but about the journey to get there.

Where can I learn more about catalyst leadership?

In this article we have referenced several books and other articles. Below is a list of the most relevant ones.

  • Leadership Agility by Bill Joiner & Stephen Josephs
  • Multipliers by Liz Wiseman & Greg McKeown
  • Humanocracy by Gary Hamel & Michele Zanini
  • No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings & Erin Meyer
  • Mindset by Carol Dweck
  • Insight by Tasha Eurich
  • Work Rules by Laszlo Block
  • Turning the Ship Around by David Marquet
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear

In addition to the books which are great for self-learning, we have several training offers that can help you embark on your personal leadership journey:

Also, feel free to drop us a line if you have any questions or want to develop a larger number of leaders within your organization. You can contact us through team(at)

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