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Reviews & Reflections

Leading from the Middle

Several years ago, Henry Mintzberg (2004) wrote a book assailing business schools called Managers, not MBA’s. The 21st-century version might be, ‘Catalysts, Not Managers’.

The words above were my answer to a question posed by friend and colleague, Jerry Toomer. Jerry, along with colleagues from Butler University, were doing research about people in the middle of organizations who affect positive change without formal authority. Why is this important now? What makes them tick? What skills and behaviors do they demonstrate?

Several trends are occurring that make this a timely area of research:

  • Organizations are flattening their hierarchies to cut costs and increase speed.

  • Organizations are out-sourcing non-strategic functions to cut costs and create strategic focus.

  • The trade-off is that managers with responsibility for workflows and projects often must work across organizational boundaries, and with less formal authority over members of teams.

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Fortunately, there are those in organizations who have already been affecting positive change without formal authority. In their book, The Catalyst Effect, Jerry Toomer, Craig Caldwell, Steve Weitzenkorn, and Chelsea Clark, studied these people and presented their findings. They defined “12 Skills and Behaviors to Boost Your Impact and Elevate Team Performance.”

Unlike many business books about leadership, this book does not focus on the senior executive. It recognizes that the real leadership work must happen amongst the rank and file. The authors cite 12 skills used by catalytic leaders organized into 4 clusters:

  • Building Credibility

  • Creating Cohesion

  • Generating Momentum

  • Amplifying impact

It is interesting that the clusters loosely follow a change process.  One sees the arc from establishing credibility to achieving results. A catalyst must be trustworthy in the full sense of the word. That is the competence, character, and caring that catalytic leaders show to others. To create cohesion, they build coalitions of like minded people, à la John Kotter’s 8 Step Process for Leading Change. They generate momentum by energizing others, and sharing their leadership, thus expanding the coalition. The amplify their impact through an emphasis on continual growth, others and themselves.

This book does not make a claim that it has found something radically new.  The authors cite myriad other work that relates to their findings. For example they cite the work of Professor Rob Cross,who has made his life’s work of studying how real work in organizations is done via networks, outside of the hierarchies. As they describe the ways that catalytic leaders inspire trust, they reference the Speed of Trust from Stephen M.R Covey. PeterSenge’s seminal classic, The Fifth Discipline, frames their study of organizational learning in a school. The liberal use of references legitimizes the book for me. This tells me that the authors have chops. They know the territory.

While the research and references in the book appeal to leadership development nerds like me, it’s the stories that give this book juice. The story of Duke University and NBA player, Shane Battier, is a great example of a catalytic leader.  Described by Michael Lewis in a New York Times piece as the No-Stats All-Star , Battier unselfishly made others better and heightened the team’s ability to achieve results.  Then, there are the stories of not-so-famous catalysts. To drill home the point of coaching others to excel, consider the testimonial of one of the authors, Chelsea Clark. After beginning graduate school at Texas A&M, her advisor left for another university, and there were no other professors there whose research interests aligned with hers.  Landing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chelsea was fortunate to have Dr. Tom Carsey as an advisor. In Chelsea’s words, “In the public or perish world of higher education, it’s not uncommon for faculty members to be far more concerned with their own research interests than with inputs into the lives of their colleagues and students.” Dr Carsey was the exception, investing time mentoring and coaching Chelsea through the completion of her PhD. Now she is a professor at Wheaton College, paying forward the lessons of growing others that that she learned from Dr. Carsey.

The "What's Next" guide at the end of the book helps a reader assess and develop catalytic skills. True to their M.O.’s as leadership development people, the authors don’t settle for readers studying catalytic leadership, their hope for you is that you become one. 

William FanelliComment