Why great leadership doesn't require formal authority

The best leaders catalyse performance, wherever they are.

by Steve Weitzenkorn and Jeanne Glasser Levine
Last Updated: 05 Apr 2018
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Can one be a high-impact leader without managerial authority? How can any team member—whether part of a project team, executive team, sports team, or any group – elevate the performance of others and the unit overall?  In The Catalyst Effect: 12 Skills and Behaviors to Boost Your Impact and Elevate Team Performance, we  examined what some people—‘catalysts’—do to generate extraordinary outcomes in business, the arts, sports, education and nonprofits.

The investigation was inspired by the performance of Shane Battier, a professional basketball player who made everyone around him and his teams better, even though his individual statistics were mediocre. He became known as a ‘No Stats, All Star’—a ‘Glue Guy’.

As he said in a recent speech ‘The Art of the Intangible’, ‘The only commerce I cared about was the success of the team. My art was doing all I could to make my team better… to add to the greater good… including doing little things that no one else wanted to do and are never highly acclaimed.’ 

When Battier was on the court, his team performed at a higher level.  He was a catalyst.  We discovered catalysts in organisations as diverse as fast food restaurants, high tech businesses, industrial companies, schools, and musical groups—including Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.

The Silk Road Ensemble brought together wildly diverse musicians, many of whom played unusual, culture-specific instruments. Most did not know each other before joining it. How would they work together? How would their distinctive sounds and rhythms blend? What unique music could they create together?

Yo-Yo Ma’s low key catalytic style generated mutual trust and respect among the musicians and optimism in what they could create. This facilitated collaboration, flexible and fluid thinking, and imaginative experimentation.

Tabla player Sandeep Das credits these factors for creating the magical chemistry and brilliant compositions that spun out their collaborative energy.  After just a few years, this international ensemble was nominated for four Grammy Awards and won two. They now tour worldwide to packed venues.

We also examined what happened in a major industrial company that reduced its reporting levels from twelve to six, dramatically increasing managerial spans of control. And what occurred in Zappos, an online apparel and shoe store, which chose to operate with no layers at all. 

Catalysts create performance–propelling dynamics through their actions in four key areas. Each of these ‘cornerstones’ is anchored with a set of three competencies. People become catalysts inside an organisation, whether they have entered fresh out of school, in mid-career, or at an executive level, by effectively deploying key competencies in each one, first to establish themselves and then to enhance team and organisational effectiveness.

1. Build credibility

Without credibility, who will listen to or follow another unless coerced? Therefore, catalysts develop trust and deep credibility—in who they are, how they work, what they produce and deliver, what they value, and the optimism they project. Credibility is the lubricant of catalytic action. It also engenders reciprocity among team members, which builds greater trust and optimism, and further accelerates team progress.

2. Create cohesion

This flows naturally from established credibility. Creating cohesion requires strong human relationships, based on the ability to connect emotionally, develop camaraderie, and put the team’s goals and the organisation’s mission before personal interests. Teams perform at higher levels when members feel melded to each other and to a common cause. Common purpose is the bedrock of cohesiveness.

3. Generate momentum

At sporting events, when a team is making a major comeback after falling behind, momentum (mission-directed energy) can crescendo as the team closes the gap one play at a time. It’s as if the momentum feeds on itself — generating more successive and powerful heads of steam — through the adrenaline it produces.

Catalysts build on team cohesiveness to accelerate movement toward mission-fulfilling goals. They inspire others to vigorously achieve lofty objectives by creating an environment where people work passionately for an overarching common purpose. Catalysts ignite others to execute with the mission in mind. They also know when to lead and when to let others assume the mantle of leadership. Beyond that, they constantly seek to deepen and broaden their own and their team’s skills and knowledge.  Credibility, cohesion and momentum combine for a robust dynamic.

4. Amplify impact

Catalysts drive the pursuit of excellence, strengthen the talent and skills of others, and facilitate development of imaginative solutions. Adding them to the stream of other catalytic competencies magnifies what a team can produce and elevates enduring performance, because they embed the catalytic ethic onto the fabric of team and organisational cultures.

When teams have more than one catalyst, the effect is multiplied… and even more so when there are three or four. 

In sport and in business, catalytic leaders believe, and demonstrate through their actions, that success is achieved by overall team performance—not by the actions of one person. To that end, catalysts like Shane Battier continually carry out pivotal tasks as effectively as possible, even when their necessity is under recognized or they require extra hustle. Titles and personal accolades don’t win games, capture new business, solve problems, or generate better outcomes.

Catalysts energize others to execute with the mission in mind. They lead from wherever they are.

Steve Weitzenkorn is co-author of The Catalyst Effect. Jeanne Glasser Levine was editor. To learn more and understand how you can develop the competencies of a catalytic leader visit theCatalystEffect.org.

Image credit: tomertu/Shutterstock


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