“As a catalyst I come into a situation, seeing what is there, bringing some of my own thoughts in, but holding back and seeing lots of different elements and allowing my mind to be big enough to swirl in it to come to some ideas and directions. Being a catalyst is helping to then make something different or to change direction. Then bringing people along on that idea and getting them to move forward on that idea.” – catalyst
We’ve all experienced catalysts – there is an energy that seems to swirl around them, they constantly have new ideas and can inspire us to think the impossible is possible. Catalysts can be like a thorn in our side, always pushing to make things even better. And they can scare the shit out of us because, once again, they are suggesting that we change things – things we thought were fine. And yet we recognize that much of what is great around us exists because a catalyst dared to dream it, dared us to dream it with them, and, even more, dared to take the risks to make it come to life. People like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey – they dared to dream, push people past what their fears let them believe were limits, birthed experiences that were beyond our imaginings – and have changed the world.
In late 2015 I began doing research with people that self-identify as catalysts (or activators, or game changers, or change agents, or paradigm breakers…). In this post I am sharing the attributes that are common to a catalyst. Not which attributes make them successful. Nor their unique challenges. That will come. Rather these are the signs that you are dealing with a catalyst, or that you yourself are a catalyst.
There are six attributes that, when combined, are the telltale signs of a catalyst.
1. Quickly Processing & Piecing Together Lots of Info, Systemically & Contextually.
First and foremost catalysts describe a process – more of a way of being – of quickly taking in new information then considering, organizing and synthesizing. In interviews this was described as “seeing things out there and putting them together, connecting and orchestrating.” And it happens faster than for others: “I can be 20 steps ahead and it can be hard for others to catch up.”
Many talked about this intuitive process as putting pieces together like building a puzzle. But not consciously. Just something that happens naturally for them. So they often assume those around them were coming to the same conclusions and were confused when others didn’t see the same things.
“It is something more than just being an observer. Catalysts are active or strategic observers. Or it has an architect concept – putting all the pieces together. Not just a vision, but more like clairvoyance, illuminacity, a type of x-ray vision. You are thinking ‘How can you not see this? It is so obvious.’”
And catalysts view the information within the context of the group, company or culture within which it is situated. “You have to understand a system to act within the system.”
Additionally, catalysts tend to have high emotional intelligence – the capability of individuals to recognize their own, and other people’s emotions. This appears to be another type of information that flows in to them. Another part of a system that they are taking information in about. As one catalyst explained, “Catalysts need to have a high level of emotional intelligence to gauge people’s needs and how to interact in that system.”
2. Multitudes of Ideas and Constantly Seeing Possibilities
Another telltale sign of a catalyst is that they have a zillion ideas and see possibilities on how to solve problems and make things better. There are many people that consume lots of information, but many don’t come up with ideas and possibilities inspired by the information they consume. Catalysts can’t stop themselves.
“A catalyst is always examining how it can be better.”
“Catalysts see their surroundings and the people around them and see possibilities – the possibilities to change things.”
“A catalyst sees opportunity and possibility and stepping into THAT rather than circling around or going backwards. It is forward momentum.”
“A catalyst is somebody who is interested in breaking paradigms to solve problems. Someone who is thinking about institutions or norms or team dynamics that perpetuate issues and this person can’t stand it. But they are also excited the prospect of going beyond these norms to look for new solutions.”
“I don’t consider myself a curious person. I think it is just more I see something and I have an ‘ah hah moment’ and I think we can make something more of it. Or maybe I see it a different way in my head. Then having the ability to turn something around in a way so it can be seen. Seeing something in a different light that leads to a change, opening up a new avenue. The playfulness of turning something around, or an idea around on its head. With projects that we are working on, my contribution to the collaboration is saying the craziest things that pop into my head. There is a certain level of not being ashamed of throwing out this weird idea. … The ability to look at things in lots of different ways.”
And the ideas never stop. It is a way of being in the world. Of interacting with the world. “I am always working through to the next thing.” “There is always more to do.” “The ideas never end.”
3. Intuitive and Perceived as Comfortable with Risk & Ambiguity
There is a knowing that emerges for catalysts as they build puzzles from the swirl of information around them. All those interviewed talked of not having to figure everything out to be ready to move forward. They just need to know enough to trust the leap is the right one. And to them the leap doesn’t feel risky. This leads to catalysts being seen as risk-takers. However, catalysts themselves may not describe themselves as being comfortable with risk. Likely they will speak of being highly intuitive. When they’ve processed information and are ready for action, taking what looks like a bold step to an outsider doesn’t feel that risky to the catalyst herself.
“There is a place of creating alignment by trusting intuition. They are highly intuitive. Have a deeper sense of what is needed. I feel like I can tap into that sooner when there is still room to do something about it and honoring it, trusting it and speaking it to it and getting alignment around it. Number one thing a catalyst should NOT do is ignore their intuition. Especially when it doesn’t even make sense to them because it might make sense to other people. Especially when it doesn’t. But that is the scary part. That is vulnerable. As a catalyst we can dismiss it [intuition or gut feeling] or ignore it.”
“Being a catalyst is knowing when time to get out of neutral and move. Time to bring energy in, get things in motion, or stop the train. Sensing what is needed in the moment.”
“When I am powerfully leading from the front I trust intuition versus trying to get it perfect and have all the answers and know what I’m doing. Trusting I don’t have to have all the answers and I have them anyway. If I can really be present and read the room I will know what to do. I don’t have to have a strategy and plan all worked out in advance. When I have a strategy all worked out in advance I am not reading the room and adjusting accordingly. I am not present. I am in plan and strategy and I will be ineffective in getting people aligned where I am pointing them.”
“I’m comfortable operating in the fog – with 40% to 70% of the information. With a strong intuition (gut feeling).”
Others can also assume catalysts are comfortable with ambiguity. Catalysts know that to get to transformation they have to move through territories that are unknown. And while some catalysts embrace ambiguity, it can also drive catalysts insane. So it may not be that they like or welcome ambiguity. However, they may have gotten comfortable with ambiguity or with knowing ambiguity is inevitable. It can still be very trying for them. It is just part of what MUST be to fulfill their innate drive. They know the feeling of the end state they are moving toward – they have seen it, felt it. So they will more comfortably lean into what is necessary to get there.
“Other people can be uncomfortable working with me, if they are doing work without knowing where they are going. I don’t know where I am going either and for me that is the beauty of it.”
“There is a danger with catalysts not clearly sharing the full vision. The catalyst might know, or might have enough of a sense, but they might not be good at sharing it so others might feel it is chaotic or murky. So people that are not good with ambiguity can be annoyed with catalysts.”
4. Drive for Action That TRANSFORMS
The process doesn’t stop at processing and seeing possibilities – catalysts MUST take action. It is painful to not take action. And at the center of their drive is changing the world for the better. This drive comes across like a lifetime purpose to make the world around them better.
“I make things happen! If I go into a job or project I want to lead it and make things happen. I want to make it a success. I see the moving parts to make it happen. I see the goal and the way to make it get there.”
“Being a catalyst is figuring it out and getting results. … It is about understanding the problems and figuring out how to solve them. … As a catalyst you are catalyzing something that isn’t catalyzed. Things are in a state that aren’t happening – a situation that needs work. And any business needs work. But optimizing something operating at 94% is not a challenge a catalyst wants. Such minutiae is not interesting. It’s the process: 1. Vision, 2. Action, 3. Results. To be a real catalyst you have to get to results. If you just have a vision that didn’t make the change. It is a continuum. As a catalyst there is some sense of “what results did you achieve?” If no results, then you are an idea person.”
“Can you transform situations? Are you having a transformative role in how your daughter sees the world, how your department approaches research, how you do analysis? As a catalyst it is kind of in your DNA – you have this drive to do it! To think about how something can grow, be exciting, innovative.”
“It is all about flow and movement. Keeping things moving in a direction of progress and possibility and where there is openness versus dead ends and closed doors. It is like a sense of ‘We are heading into a dead end, hold on I think we might want to turn left, let’s go explore the left!’ A catalyst is about keeping the path open rather than heading you into dead ends or not going anywhere. It is that progress piece. That is what a catalyst brings: progress.”
“Someone who looks at the world to see how it benefits each other. How we can improve what is existing? If you have a good service, I think about how to make it better. I’m always examining and trying to make it better. People say, ‘I want to change the world’ but what I’m thinking is ‘How do I change the world for the better? versus just execute.
“I prioritize thinking about how to be a catalyst with integrity. It isn’t about being a forceful leader – it’s combing being a strategic leader with an enabling leader. By game changer, I usually think about system or ecosystem change, and what the triggers can be. In talking about system or ecosystem change, you need to move beyond the status quo (people or process) and admit humility — you do need others and shifts in roles to succeed. So game changing or catalyzing with integrity means being clear on the long term picture that you are willing to fail and experiment to bring to fruition – and it takes more than you to build that future sustainably.”
“They are driven by a purpose – they almost view the world is a better place because of what they want to do. They think about themselves almost as an agent of something that must happen.”
5. Create Visions
Once a catalyst decides a particular idea is worth taking action on they develop a vision – often effortlessly. The catalyst can see the vision perfectly. It is, in fact, obvious to them because of the data they have taken in and processed.
“As a catalyst there is vision and execution. You are catalyzing something for a reason. You have to have a vision for what you want to achieve. It implies an end result. That person has to be able to get somewhere. I am a results oriented person. I lay out a vision and I get there. That is implied.”
“There is a strong vision of what I want to do. Even though if I explain it to someone they don’t always see it… sometimes hard to convey because they are seeing in 2 dimensions and I see in 3. You can only understand the matrix after you’ve been in the matrix. There is no way to explain things sometimes to people.”
“I think of our co-founder. She is a quiet leader. She looks at something project by project basis. She is tactical not strategic. I think a catalyst and game changer has to have some sort of vision – project, product or organization. Not just the MVP. I wouldn’t call her a catalyst or a game changer. I think she can catalyze action on a small scale. Not a sexy story. Not a sexy process. Not something that makes people go WOW. I think you need that. A catalyst – even with integrity – when they throw a firecracker it is a BOOM WOW moment. They may not need it, but that is what they create. She has a hard time imagining running org without me because she doesn’t see as far as me. When I show her she sees it and she can move things toward that. I don’t know what her vision is. She could be a catalyst, but I haven’t seen it in action yet (can catalysts hide?)
The vision may come together quickly, or a vision may take longer to crystallize depending on the complexity of the problem or system in which it will be implemented. This period was talked about with different descriptive nouns: the storming, the soup, the fog, the ambiguity stew.
And at their best, catalysts can share their visions to bring others along on the journey. (However – spoiler alert – in an upcoming blog about biggest challenges faced by catalysts I’ll talk about how some catalysts struggle to communicate their visions.)
“Catalysts are influencers. They have influence-ability. They are story tellers. They paint a picture of what is possible; what is up ahead. They are both strategic…strategic with the influencing ability. They can see further ahead than other people can, and catalysts can get people inspired to move toward it so it is not just an idea. They know how to rally people. They are very enrolling. Catalysts are enrollers. … They really want to make a difference. They love shifting things and creating something new. Just selling something is not interesting nor compelling enough. They want to be involved in creating the new thing and making the shift happen and getting people involved in that. They are not the engine. They need people to be the engine. They are more the… driver. They can’t go anywhere without the car and engine, but they help drive the car somewhere, steer it.”
6. Learning and Experimentation Mindset
The final common attribute of catalysts is how they engage with the world around them when they are taking action that allows for constant forward movement. Like scientists or designers they have a learning and experimentation mindset. This process is called many different things, such as the design thinking process, action learning or action research. And catalysts are naturals. With each new action they take, they monitor the results, learn and then iterate to make their next step even better. This process allows for constant action and allows for a reframe of failure. If you see your actions as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, then the right action leads to success and the wrong action leads to failure. If, as a catalyst, you view your actions as experiments then even if something doesn’t end up as you expected it to, it is just information – valuable information that guides how your next step should be redirected. Unexpected outcomes or “failures” become a challenge, not an end point. This mindset creates tremendous resiliency and makes the catalysts among us appear buoyant in the face of difficulty.
This way of being can be difficult for those around them because even when things come together well, a catalyst doesn’t (or can’t) stop seeing possibility and optimizing for improved results. The pace of iteration, innovation and change can drive the people around them crazy.
“Game changing or catalyzing with integrity means being clear on the long term picture that you are willing to fail and experiment to bring to fruition… I don’t give up.”
“I’m happiest when tinkering and experimenting. Could be making a proof of concept. Ideating. Taking the idea from crazy concept to something tangible.”
“One of our co-founders is 100% a catalyst. She inspires a lot of people to look at something that was a ‘huh?’ issue and get people rallying behind what she is trying to do. [In her other technology initiative she] initially she did non-tech projects. Then they did research, made it a PDF and BAM! Things took off.”
“I’ve learned how important it is to have a learning mindset and never become complacent we know it all. So as a catalyst I like teach others to have learning mindset. Without that, success just looks different. “
“You have an idea but you are not as attached to outcome and how you have to get them there and you are not rigid and don’t try to brute force them there. It might go the way you planned it. You have to let go of the outcome but stay focused on function or what really matters. When you have that and tap into being present and trust your intuition and are paying attention to what is happening in room you are often brilliant. You are tapped into the bigger picture.”
Conclusion: Why Should We Care About Catalysts?
“We heard from leader after leader, that though change has always been a significant part of what they have had to deal with, now the pace and nature of it is dramatically different. Leaders used to be able to rely on patterns, rules and on who makes the rules. Now these constants have been challenged.”
2013 CEO Study: Leading in Context, DukeCE
Why is it so important for us to celebrate and understand catalysts? To be honest the reasons are still emerging for me. When I began this endeavor I was researching my ideal clients, and early in the process I saw something new in what was emerging: A way of being that solves problems and enlists others that is all around us – not just how Oprah and Richard Branson are in the world – but how people we meet every day make our world a better place with purpose and resilience. While there is much literature about innovation, there is little about the people who are pivotal in driving innovation forward. There is wonderful research on leadership within innovative companies, on grit, on growth mindsets – and all of that work intersects what I’m seeing – but research on the fire starters, the change agents, the catalysts is few and far between.
As I wade through my own ambiguity stew here are some things that I am seeing that lead me to believe that understanding and celebrating catalysts and the catalytic process is important:
- The pace of change has accelerated in our world. Now, more than ever, we need people ready to lean comfortably into change. We need people that can see the changing world around them and quickly come up with ideas to improve and build. Helping catalysts understand themselves so they can lean into their abilities feels important.
- Also, there are clear patterns on the best environments where they can maximize their impact.
- And it helps us all to help those around catalysts learn how to more comfortably join in the process rather than feeling the resistance or fear that can happen when working with a catalyst.
- Plus we can all benefit from becoming more comfortable with the pace of change and the processes that catalysts leverage naturally. Learning from catalysts so we can all be more resilient and we can all lean into the myriad challenges that emerge in our daily lives, in our organizations, in our communities and in our world. As our world moves more quickly and our economy moves to nonstandard employment we can all be served by building our ability to take in what is new, ideate and reframe failure as we try new things.
So without all the answers, but with a clear vision, I am jumping in to learn and share about catalysts.
Background on Catalyst Research
In November 2015, I looked at the similarities between my favorite clients. Stark similarities emerged in the challenges they undertook in their professional and personal lives, their sense of passion and urgency to manifest their goals, their deep desire to be of service and the pace at which they processed information. I didn’t have a word to describe them. Then in the very next session with one of those clients he said “I realized I’m a catalyst”. It was like lightning struck. Yes! That is what ties my favorite clients together. I had observational data from working with my clients, but I wanted to be more direct in my quest so I could better serve my ideal clients. I leaned into my background as an anthropologist and began to systematically interview people that self-identify as catalysts. These blog posts are my first way of sharing the knowledge I am accumulating. I have found that sharing what I’m learning with catalysts – and those wanting to amplify their catalytic tendencies – helps people make sense of their own experiences and gives them power to manifest and change the world even more powerfully.
In the coming months, I will share more findings from the research, including:
- The primary challenges catalysts face
- The biggest mistake catalyst leaders make
- The conditions that allow a catalyst to be most successful
I’d love to hear your thoughts on and experience with catalysts. If you self-identify as a catalyst or change agent let me know what resonates!