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Your New Job: The Catalyst Leader

By Tacy Byham, Ph.D.

Tacy ByhamIn recent years, the term “boss” has taken a real beating both in the workplace and in popular culture. In movies the boss tends to be a ruthless gangster or amoral chieftain. In digital gaming, the boss is the last, biggest, and most horrific in a series of monsters that must be defeated. In business, the image of real-life leaders doesn’t fare any better. Search for “Bad Boss” on Google and find more than 36 million entries. Headlines include: “Ten things only bad bosses say,” “What makes a bad boss bad,” or, our favorite, “How to Survive 13 Types of Dysfunctional, Disrespectful, and Dishonest Little Dictators.” There are even multiple websites for bad bosses.

Imagine the stress that this can cause a new leader trying to succeed in your organization. My co-author, Rich Wellins, and I have watched emerging leaders grappling with many issues—some succeeding and some failing. Our new book, Your First Leadership Job, will guide these leaders through the challenges they will face.

Consider Mary, a new leader, who was interviewed for the book. When Mary described how she felt about her first leadership job, she repeatedly used the same term: “off-center.” Occasionally, she adjusted it to “totally off-center” or “completely off-center.”

But the outcome was the same.

Mary’s first eight months as a leader made her realize how unprepared she was. She had moved from a production job to a sales function, with no prior sales experience, and she was managing others for the first time. An all-male team of 12.

A female leader was a rarity in the male-dominated culture of chemical engineering, though Mary didn’t have time to enjoy the sound of the glass ceiling shattering. Instead, she found herself eye-to-eye with an unhappy rival. One of her new team members had been groomed for the job she now had, and was none too happy about losing out. To make matters worse, the previous boss had been beloved by the team. How could Mary possibly fill his shoes? That dizzy, off-center feeling was her constant awareness of being in a totally unfamiliar landscape without the tools to navigate clear.

Our goal for leaders in transition, like Mary, is to help them come up to speed quickly—being productive and engaging their teams. It requires a mindset shift and a specific set of leadership behaviors. Because leadership is all about behavior—what leaders need to do, when, and why. They’re on a journey to become the best leaders they can be and to fulfill their leadership legacy. But, as we all know, there is no magic button that will instantly transform them into perfect leaders. They’ll encounter unexpected diversions, tough challenges, and brand-new experiences.

We offer a simple, but powerful, idea of what people must become to succeed: a catalyst. Much like an ingredient that induces a chemical reaction, a catalyst leader is someone who ignites action in others. That ignition might jump-start a change in an inefficient process, spawn a new idea for a new product, or most importantly—effect change in others. Catalyst leaders represent the gold standard—energetic, supportive, forward-thinking mentors who spark action in others.

Both our research and observations show a dramatic difference between poor and even average leaders and those who we would label catalysts. In Lou Solomon’s Harvard Business Review article titled “The Top Complaints of Employees About their Leaders” (June 2015), he demonstrates that the vast majority of leaders are not engaging in crucial moments that could help employees see them as trustworthy.

In contrast, catalyst leaders help people and organizations grow by intentionally pursuing goals that stretch their skills and test their mettle. They collaborate and foster interdependence. And, catalyst leaders are opportunity-creators—they open doors of opportunity for others.

This figure illustrates what being a catalyst leader is all about.

The Catalyst Leader

Whether you have new leaders or people with a few years of experience, becoming a catalyst leader is hard work. It doesn’t happen overnight. The common characteristic in great catalysts is their passion to become better leaders.

Catalyst leaders strengthen both the people and organization.

What It Takes to Have More Catalyst Leaders

Heavily weigh catalyst behavior for both selection and promotion decisions. While these behaviors are trainable, finding those potential leaders with a reasonable level of emotional intelligence will save you headaches later on. The type of leader you promote also sends a strong signal to the rest of the organization about what behaviors are valued in leaders.

Let your leaders know where they stand. There’s an array of powerful and reasonably priced assessment tools that accurately evaluate catalyst leader behaviors. These tools help leaders recognize their strengths and often identify blind spots. In addition to guiding development, they should be used as part of your leader selection process.

Ensure ongoing practice. Our research, across thousands of leaders, confirms the developability of catalyst behavior. However, positive change comes with skills development and ongoing attempts at application. There are no shortcuts.

The right behaviors need to be modeled at the top. Unfortunately, as leaders rise to the top, they tend to regress in demonstrating the behaviors we describe in this article. In some ways this is understandable because using the right skills consistently isn’t easy. But when senior leaders don’t model catalyst behaviors—when they damage self-esteem, micromanage, or don’t listen—they make it easier for frontline leaders to avoid putting in the effort.

Tacy Byham, Ph.D. is DDI's Senior Vice President.

To learn more about Your First Leadership Job and to view videos, read more excerpts, download additional chapters and continue the conversation, visit

Posted: 14 Jul, 2015,
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