Leadership as a Catalyst for Change

For changes to occur, there must be a catalyst – something that spurs the change. When we think of the word “catalyst,” we may harken back to ye old high school chemistry class and remember that catalysts are substances that initiate or accelerate a chemical reaction. Within an organization, transformational leaders are the catalysts for positive change.


Who Can Be a Catalyst?
The great thing about leadership is that one doesn’t necessarily need to be in a position of power to instigate change. In one of the most remarkable enterprise wide-changes using Appreciative Inquiry, it was a young (under 30) sailor who had the courage to ask for a meeting with the CNO—the Chief Naval Officer. When the head of the Navy heard about the power of Appreciative Inquiry to provide a pathway to culture shift, he saw how it could forge a system of “leadership at every level. This, in a hierarchical command-and-control system, never would have happened if the young sailor had followed the chain of command. Rule number one: catalysts are rule breakers!    

Indeed, organizations where all constituencies feel and are empowered to initiate change, have an advantage over others where that isn’t the case. They are more agile, flexible and better able to adapt to environmental, social, and industry-wide shifts. Transformational leadership cultures call for not simply the input, but the engagement and unleashing of the best in all stakeholders.

Transformational leaders can be a catalyst for positive change within organizations and in society as a whole. These leaders have a vision for the future, know what must be done for that vision to come to fruition, can engage others, and are willing to empower others to help them achieve those goals. To make decisions, today’s leaders must consider a wide range of factors within an ever-evolving and complex environment.

Transformational leaders view decisions holistically, realizing that every decision made will impact people in some capacity. Changes will impact not just employees but external stakeholders as well. It is the job of these leaders to help their teams to not only tolerate change but to embrace it as healthy and positive.


How to Be a Catalyst
To be a catalyst for positive change, transformational leaders begin by inquiring of themselves what change they wish to see and turn it into an elevated and inspiring opportunity—a positive emotional attractor. In our research we have discovered three core catalytic moves and skills:

  1. Appreciative Intelligence: My colleague Tojo Thachenkery describes Appreciative Intelligence as the capacity “to see the mighty oak—in an acorn.” That’s a catalytic act. It’s the ability to see the future in the texture of the actual. When Steve Jobs was creating Apple, he had a chance to visit the research labs at Xerox. They were working on a new computer interface. Everyone told Steve it was nothing, that it was flawed, and likely a waste of time. But in spite of the early prototype flaws he saw something very few could see. But he peered beyond the flaws. He looked around the curve. He described it as one of the most important and exciting moments in his life. He said: When I went to Xerox PARC in 1979, I saw a very rudimentary graphical user interface. It wasn’t complete. It wasn’t quite right. But you know, within 10 minutes, it was suddenly obvious to me that every computer in the world would work this way someday.”  Sometimes catalyzing change involves the gift of new eyes. Leadership is about seeing, and especially seeing the future in the texture of the actual. And this requires another gift.
  1. Leadership Involves Framing and Re-framing. The second part of the chemistry of leadership is the catalytic act of reframing threats and deficits and turning them into magnetic opportunities. Think about all of the terrible plastic bottles polluting our oceans and the plastic particles finding their way into our fish and ecosystems. Well the leaders at Nothing New said they wanted to do something with this waste. Today Nothing New is proud of its sneakers. Made out of bottles and old fishnets from our oceans, the Nothing New gym shoes have literally nothing new in them. Everything is re-purposed. And it makes so much business sense. Nothing New even gives money back to the consumer when the shoes are worn out. The customer simply ships them back when the shoe is too old and Nothing New gives the customer $20 dollars in return Why? Because all waste is wealth, in disguise. Think about how cheap the raw materials are after, let’s say, 10 to 20 cycles of shoes becoming shoes. Beyond economy of scale we should now be talking about economies of cycle. One catalytic leadership act, in this case reframing waste to wealth, can inspire and transform whole companies, even industries.  
  1. Catalytic Leadership Involves Creating New Conversations that Break Old Conversational Patterns. A third and seemingly always productive change catalyst is bringing in voices “not quite like our own.” Consider the City of Cleveland. It was a polluted city. It was a city in decay. But today it’s a city on the rise. Do you remember when Cleveland was seen by the nation as “the mistake on the lake”—do you remember it? In 1969 the polluted Cuyahoga river was so toxic it burst on fire. Well years later, with framing and reframing, the change topic or magnetic opportunity became “Coming Together to Empower a Green City on a Blue Lake.” The Mayor brought 700 stakeholders—business, nonprofit, governmental leaders and citizens—together for a decade of annual three-day design summits. But the breakthrough came early on when organizers said “lets not just bring the same people, with the same patterns of conversation, together.” One catalytic leadership act happened when one person said: “let’s bring teams from Denmark and other environmentally advanced places to join our conversation.” Well it worked. But not for the reasons you would think. Most thought that what the outsiders would bring would be expertise and exemplars. Yes, that was part of it. But the greater part was how the outsiders broke the typical patterns of repetitive conversations.  What the outsiders brought was the ability to see things in Cleveland that even the Clevelanders could not see in themselves. They saw people with grit. They saw people’s goodness. They also saw Cleveland’s strengths. Now that’s catalytic—and it was just enough to break the hammerlock of the status quo. Today Cleveland, after winning a $59 million dollar pilot grant, is on the verge of creating the world’s first major off-shore freshwater wind energy system.      


Now ask yourself: how might I become a catalyst for change? What action(s) must I take? How can I point others in the right direction, and what will encourage them to join me in making the change?

Once change leaders have determined the best course of action, they must consider whether the timing is right. Does this change make sense right now, or would people be better served by waiting for a while? Once the leader feels the timing is appropriate, they must then carry out the action that instigates the change.

The action one takes to initiate positive change doesn’t have to be grandiose. Large scale changes can begin with one small action. Like dominoes, a slight movement can be a catalyst for another small action, and so on until a significant change has occurred. Organizations and institutions that empower individuals to become such catalysts have the potential to impact our society positively, and even our world.  

In terms of the chemistry of change, ask yourself “what’s the smallest but mightiest catalytic act I have ever leveraged?” And next, what’s something bigger, bolder and braver—”the catalytic act or skill that ignited things in ways that even exceeded my own expectations?” While we don’t often think of “change beginnings”–  the catalysts that initiate or “accelerate a chemical reaction”—these are often the most important leadership moments to learn from. Have you ever studied, perhaps through Appreciative Inquiry, your own and others most catalytic moves?


Everyone should practice this kind of leadership discovery. It, in and of itself, can be a catalyst of catalysts.