object002The term “Catalytic Leader” is most commonly associated with social activism and religion; however, this phrase also appears in business leadership literature defined by behaviours and outcomes. Culp and Cox (1997) define a Catalytic Leader as a leader that works collaboratively to “develop new strategies, alternatives, tactics, or paradigms” (p. 15). Additionally, Ehin (2009) defines a Catalytic Leader as a leader that increases the “rate of action and interaction by group members without the imposition of one’s will” (p. 65) and notes that the catalytic behaviour process is one of continuous change. This paper attempts to extend the definition of the Catalytic Leader beyond behaviours and outcomes, to the physiology of the anatomical constructs of the Catalytic Leader’s head, heart, hands and feet.

A Catalytic Leader can be embodied in one person (Culp & Cox, 1997), or across many in an organisation working together within a system (Senge, 2006; Ehin, 2009). However, for the purposes of this paper, I will refer to the Catalytic Leader as being one individual leader.

“What does it take to be an effective leader in a business environment that combines Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millenials? These are my thoughts. . .” – Winston Churchill


“Man is not defined by what denies him, but by that which affirms him. This is found within, not across from him or next to him” (Wiesel, 2006).

The skills of a business leader have evolved over time. Before the industrial revolution, a businessperson’s primary asset was his or her individual skill, or “hands”. During the industrial revolution, a transactional leader emerged whose primary asset was his or her thinking capability, or “head”. The information age recognized the importance of the “heart” in effective business leadership, and the transformational leader was born (Burns, 1978; Bass, 1985). The advent of the social age blurred the boundaries between work and personal roles (Trevor & Kilduff, 2012). Social media and other means, such as closed-circuit television in public spaces, foment transparency of individual behaviour. Leaders can survive unprecedented levels of societal scrutiny if they evolve from transformational leader to “Catalytic Leader” (Culp & Cox, 1997; Ehin, 2009). I suggest this can be done through the integration of “feet” with the “hands”, “head”, and “heart” to form a complete anatomical model of social age leadership.

The current business environment is rife with scandal. The public and employees view senior leaders with scepticism and distrust (Pless & Maak, 2011), and this is exacerbated by hierarchical business structures that create the opportunity for business scandal through an “I just work here” mindset (Werhane et al., 2011, p. 426). This abdication of personal accountability hinders the creation of resonance between a leader and followers (Goleman & Boyatzis, 2002). In such an environment, behavioural integrity is critical for effective leadership.

Behavioural integrity is the degree to which a leader’s espoused views are consistent with his or her actions and is antecedent to trust and resonance (Simons, 2002, p. 19; Goleman & Boyatzis, 2002). Organisational change efforts can hamper the perceived behavioural integrity of leaders who “talk the talk”, and yet, before they can “walk the walk”, the corporate direction changes (Simons, 2002, p. 32). There is an opportunity for organisations to restore trust, and foster personal constituent accountability (Palanski and Yammarino, 2011, p. 778) through recognition of the value of a leader’s “feet”, or ability to “walk the talk”.

Our complex work environments demand complex leadership skills (Yukl, 2010, pp. 521-522). We require leaders that can engage constituents, accelerate creativity, and enhance productivity; we need a Catalytic Leader who leads with his or her head, heart, hands and feet.


A Catalytic Leader has a profound understanding, derived from deep reflection, of themselves, their business, and their followers. This results in a “richer set of perspectives about issues” (Senge, 2006, p. 289) that serves to form the basis of the organisational vision.

Catalytic Leaders use their vision to take advantage of unexpected opportunities that arise from larger systems, and resist the urge to react with a narrow focus (Senge, 2006). However, they do not act alone; they are part of a complex system and “it is essential to understand how the different parts of the organization are interrelated” (Yukl, 2010, pp. 214-215). A systems thinking (Senge, 2006) approach means the Catalytic leader enlists the talents of others in his or her work.

To engage others, a Catalytic Leader conveys their knowledge effectively to subordinates, peers and superordinates. Intra-organisational knowledge transfer is a key competitive advantage, and a primary responsibility of a leader; however, this transfer is often problematic (Simard & Rice, 2007, pp. 87-89). Use of the head function is not enough. A Catalytic Leader must also listen to his or her heart.


A Catalytic Leader is passionate about vision, people and outcomes. The heart is the engine that drives hands, feet, and head. It is what gets us out of bed in the morning, gives us strength to confront challenges, and motivation to question, “what if there is a better way”? When we “tap into people’s hearts and minds” (Kouzes & Posner, 2007, p. 174) we are speaking from the heart.

While the head can parse data, it is the heart that tips the scales between right and wrong – a critical function in the Catalytic Leader’s pursuit of their full potential (Aristotle, 1941; Flynn, 2008, p. 45; Ginsberg, 2008). Catalytic Leaders employ the morals, ethics, values and intuition that reside in their heart to guide their decision-making process. Morals and ethics constrain, while values and intuition motivate. Therefore, without the heart function, it is possible we would experience more leaders of the ilk of Hitler and Stalin (Flynn, 2008; Lewin, 1944). Although these world leaders are not the types of leaders we wish to emulate, they were visionary.

The vision created by the head gives the direction in which a Catalytic Leader will “follow their heart” (Ginsberg, 2008, p. 296). The heart can also provide a coping strategy, to deal with the aftermath of tough decisions (Ginsberg, 2008, p. 296) and facilitate future action.


A Catalytic Leader gets the job done. He or she is a master at execution, able to rally resources and accelerate group productivity with head, heart, hands and feet.

The actual work a Catalytic Leader performs provides “context and content” for their role and makes them “engaged agents” (MacKenzie & Barnes, 2007, p. 97). This transactional work helps them, and their constituents, understand the leader’s place in the organisation. It also develops resonance between Catalytic Leader and followers (Goleman & Boyatzis, 2002).

Work execution allows constituents to build trust in the Catalytic Leader’s abilities because “without results there is little support for leadership” (Grint, 2005, p.7); however, this is a double-edged sword. Gauging leadership efficacy solely “by its alleged ‘results’ is doomed to fail” (Grint, 2005, p. 7). Results form a foundation for follower trust, but are not enough alone. Followers must also see that the Catalytic Leader is authentic.


Authenticity is the ability for the Catalytic Leader to “walk the talk”. The feet enable the Catalytic Leader to translate internal values into action. The Catalytic Leader sets an example for his or her followers by the consistent demonstration of behaviours aligned with their espoused values, which, in turn, enables them to “earn and sustain credibility over time” (Kouzes & Posner, 2007, p. 94) with their followers.

In their study of forty-nine service companies, Hannes, Palanski, and Simons (2012) verified “authentic leadership as an antecedent to leader behavioral integrity” (p. 261). In turn, leader behavioural integrity led to higher levels of follower commitment and performance (Hannes et al., 2012). This result lends empirical support to the idea “a society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the rest of society and toward the world” (Sachs, 2011, p. 3). A Catalytic Leader must “walk the talk”, and ensure he or she conducts business in an authentic manner.


The Catalytic Leader possesses the ability to operate with a combination of head, heart, hands, and feet dependent upon situational context. A Catalytic Leader, as defined by behaviour, outcome, and function, can refer to a singular person with positional power, or to a group of people with distributed power. Both the singular person and the group entity are capable of employing the head, heart, hands and feet as Catalytic Leaders.

As the Catalytic Leader walks the path towards his or her vision, the landscape of new behaviours, mental models (Senge, 2006, pp.163-190), purpose and mission become ingrained. As the head reflects, the heart indicates “aspects of the organization’s culture. . .that need to change” (Goleman & Boyatzis, 2002, p. 206). The hands then communicate the need for change and entreat followers to embark on the new organisational pilgrimage. Finally, the feet set out on the path to a new future, leading the way for followers. As the path becomes familiar ground, the head spends less mental energy to maintain the new course, and the heart starts to notice new opportunities for change. As “most, if not all, leaders can improve their effectiveness” (Richmond, 2008, p. 4), the cycle begins anew as the head begins to reflect.
The Catalytic Leader is the future of leadership — a living, breathing, ever-evolving, organism with the ability to continually learn and adapt, especially to that which affirms him or her.


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